A Human Being is Not a “Product”: Catholic Teaching on Fetal Tissue Research

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On August 16, 2014, in Kkottongnae, South Korea, during the apostolic journey of Pope Francis to the Republic of Korea on the occasion of the 6th Asian Youth Day, Pope Francis stopped for a short prayer before the “Garden of aborted babies.” (Grzegorz Galazka)

In the wake of shocking videos exposing the sales of aborted babies’ body parts…

Anne Hendershott is Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church.

Anne Hendershott is Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church.

On February 22, 1987, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (writing, then, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), issued Donum Vitae: An Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. In it, he said, “The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and with the consent of the parents or of the mothers…Also, in the case of dead fetuses, as for the corpses of adult persons, all commercial trafficking must be considered illicit and should be prohibited.”

Had all faithful Catholics taken to heart this comprehensive Instruction on the respect due to the unborn child, we may have been able to avoid the horrific Planned Parenthood scandal surrounding the harvesting and sale of organs and body parts of unborn children following abortion.

Sadly, the Instruction was ignored by many Catholics. In fact, it is likely that some Catholics may have been embarrassed to be part of a Church that has raised moral questions about the use of fetal tissue or human embryonic stem cells for what many see as “lifesaving” research. Likewise, most Catholics support technical interventions like in vitro fertilization—despite Catholic teachings to the contrary—for infertile couples. Last year, a Pew Research Study revealed that only 13% of Catholics, and 12% of Americans, believe that in vitro fertilization is morally wrong. Worse, only 53% of white Catholics believe that abortion is morally wrong; and only 24% of Catholics, and 22% of Americans, said they believe that embryonic stem cell research—involving the destruction of human embryos—is morally wrong.

But, such “embarrassment” about Catholic teachings on the science of fetal tissue research is misguided. Rather than making apologies for failing to “keep up” with such anti-life medical technologies, faithful Catholics should be proud of their Church’s teaching on the dignity of the unborn child from the moment of conception. The recent undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s role in the million-dollar industry of trafficking in fetal body parts point to the value of this teaching, and remind us that the Church remains the only major institution that has consistently championed the dignity of the human being from the first moment of existence—and warned of the dangers of viewing the unborn child as a source of “life-saving” experimentation.

The Church has always taught that persons can never be viewed as “means” to an end. Using the unborn child’s body as a “product” to be harvested and sold to help cure disease and extend life is demeaning to that child’s existence—and, as we have learned from the Planned Parenthood undercover videos by the Center for Medical Progress, it is demeaning and degrading to those who participate in this life-destroying business.

Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us back in 1987 that “by acting in this way, the researcher usurps the place of God; and even though he may be unaware of this, he sets himself up as the master of the destiny of others.” No human being can be reduced in worth to a pure and simple instrument for the advantage of others. The pontiff knew then—as we know now—that once we view human beings as “products,” our very humanity is threatened.

This is especially evident in the shocking undercover videos, with tissue procurement companies callously attempting to get the highest prices possible for these “products.” Even Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized for the “tone” of the videos, saying, “In the video, one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion…I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.”

Richards was referring to the statements from Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola. In one undercover video, Nucatola is seen casually drinking wine and eating salad in a California restaurant while openly negotiating the sale of the organs of an aborted baby. Describing the challenges of “delivering” an intact brain for sale, Dr. Nucatola boasts about how successful she has been in “getting intact calvarium” [the brain-case portion of the skull]. In between sips of wine, the physician states: “And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex…So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last step, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end…We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver…a lot of people are looking for intact hearts these days. They’re looking for specific nodes…so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”

during a June 10 burial service at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas J. Tobin blesses the casket containing the remains of a fetus found in the collection area of a wastewater treatment facility. The diocese provided a "dignified and proper burial" for the child, whom the Providence bishop named "Baby Francis" in honor of the Pope's pronouncements against abortion. (CNS photo/ Rick Snizek, Rhode Island Catholic)

during a June 10 burial service at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas J. Tobin blesses the casket containing the remains of a fetus found in the collection area of a wastewater treatment facility. The diocese provided a “dignified and proper burial” for the child, whom the Providence bishop named “Baby Francis” in honor of the Pope’s pronouncements against abortion. (CNS photo/ Rick Snizek, Rhode Island Catholic)

Likewise, Dr. Mary Gatter, council president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Medical Directors was caught on tape (video 2) telling the undercover investigators that she wants to “figure out what others are getting, and if this in the ballpark, then it’s fine. If it’s still low, then we can bump it up…I want a Lamborghini.” As Pope Emeritus Benedict predicted, the dehumanization of the unborn child has resulted in the dehumanization of those in the abortion industry—especially for those involved in fetal tissue procurement.

And while the pro-life community has focused on Planned Parenthood’s role, the real money to be made is in the tissue procurement arena—the broker who provides the materials directly to the researchers. While most people know that state and federal grants fund embryonic stem cell research, fewer people realize that they also fund fetal tissue research. Lifesite News recently reported that U.S. taxpayers provided more than $280 million for fetal tissue research from 2011 to 2014—much of which comes from abortion.

The NIH identifies dozens of hospitals and universities purchasing fetal tissue with federal money, though it is notable—and laudatory—that not a single Catholic research university or hospital is on that list.

And, although federal funding for fetal tissue is significant, it is nothing compared with the tremendous increases in federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research since March 9, 2009, when President Obama issued Executive Order 13505, revoking the 2001 restrictions President Bush had placed on human embryonic stem cell research.

Once the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research were lifted, the federal floodgates were opened. In 2007, the NIH awarded $ 42.1 million in grants for human embryonic stem cell research; in 2013, the Obama administration awarded $146.1 million—an increase of 248%.

This is not to conflate human embryonic stem cell research with fetal tissue research; the numbers are used only to demonstrate the tremendous growth potential in revenue from what the industry calls “products of conception.” Fetal tissue procurement company StemExpress has enjoyed a portion of that with its extensive catalog of fetal tissues—for example, according to this catalog, cryopreserved fetal liver CD133 & Stem/Progenitor Cells (FL-CD133) can bring as much as $24,000.

The arrangements worked well—until the CEO of StemExpress, Cate Dyer, was caught on tape, laughing as she describes how her company often mails intact aborted babies to laboratories. Claiming to always warn lab workers ahead of time, she says, “Oh yeah, if you have intact cases—which we’ve done a lot—we sometimes ship those back to our lab in its entirety…Tell the lab it’s coming,” she laughs, “…You know, open the box and go ‘Oh, my God.’ ”.

In 2008, Dignitas Personae was issued by William Cardinal Levada, then Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, validating the previous Donum Vitae and further warning of “new biomedical technologies which have given rise to further questions—in particular in the field of research on human embryos, as well as in other areas of experimental medicine.”

Responding to the criticisms that the Church has “rejected” scientific technology, the 2008 Instruction reminded Catholics that the Church encourages organ and tissue donation when it is done according to strict moral standards. Fetal tissue can never be harvested following an abortion because abortion is itself intrinsically evil—but it can be obtained after a miscarriage or stillbirth if it is donated with the full consent of the parents — similar to the donation of the organs or the tissue of a deceased family member.

The Church has never been hostile to scientific research that is guided by moral and ethical principles, and continues to remind all Catholics that the origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family—where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman and bestowed with inestimable dignity by God.

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By |2015-10-01T00:29:48+00:00Oct 1st, 2015|Categories: Interview|