60 Minutes and stem cells

George Weigel

The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes prides itself on asking the hard questions that other television news vehicles are too polite, or perhaps too afraid, to ask. That tough-minded approach to an important issue wasn’t much in evidence, however, when 60 Minutes recently took on the question of whether “spare” embryos “left over” from in vitro fertilization procedures should be used for stem-cell research that would result in the embryos’ death.

During the segment, Princeton’s Robert P. George, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, tried to explain certain basic moral facts to Leslie Stahl. Cryogenically preserved embryos, Professor George said, “have the dignity of a human being, the way a full-grown man or woman has the dignity of a human being.” Ms. Stahl wasn’t persuaded. Referring to the embryos as “these little bunches of cells,” she asked, in some evident bewilderment, “Are you equating them (with grown men and women)?” Yes, he was, Professor George replied, because “those bunches of cells are very unique bunches of cells. Those are human beings in the earliest stages of their natural development. You were one once; I was one once.”

The editing of the segment strongly suggested that 60 Minutes preferred the approach of the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Arthur Caplan, an enthusiast for research that, as he put it, would destroy “embryos … that no one will ever use for any purpose whatsoever.” That, of course, is the conventional wisdom in the bioethics guild, which frequently serves as a permission-slip factory for scientists and the biotech industry. Had Ms. Stahl wanted to put Art Caplan through the typical 60 Minutes grinder, she could have asked some really tough questions:

“Dr. Caplan, isn’t it true that there isn’t a single embryonic stem-cell therapy at even the earliest stage of FDA clinical trials?”

“Dr. Caplan, what are we to make of the fact that, to date, embryonic stem cells can’t be used therapeutically because they cause tumors in the animals into which they’ve been injected? And what are we to make of the fact that, because of the biological complexities involved, no one understands, or is even close to understanding, why this happens?”

“Dr. Caplan, why do leading stem-cell scientists tell us that, even if cures using embryonic stem cells are forthcoming (and some reputable scientists are dubious about the prospect), those cures are decades away? And if that’s true, why has embryonic stem-cell research been so grotesquely hyped by its advocates? Doesn’t that risk a public backlash when the cures aren’t forthcoming next month, next year, or ten years from now? Hasn’t Lord Winston, Great Britain’s leading scientist in this field, warned about precisely that? Come to think of it, Dr. Caplan, didn’t you and a colleague write an op-ed piece raising similar cautions after Proposition 71 passed in California last year?”

“Dr. Caplan, why is there so little public discussion of the fact that adult stem-cell therapies are being used today in treating some sixty-five diseases? Why do you think that private sector biotech firms are pouring their research dollars into adult stem-cell research and therapies? Why does it seem so important to you and your allies among scientists to direct government funds toward embryonic stem-cell research?”

“Dr. Caplan, in recent months, two of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Science and Nature, have published articles by researchers at Harvard and MIT, detailing major advances in obtaining ‘pluripotent’ stem cells without killing human embryos; what do you, as an ethicist, make of that?”

“Dr. Caplan, what lessons for the debate over embryonic stem-cell research might we draw from the twentieth century’s grisly experience of medical research conducted on what the researchers regarded as ‘disposable’ human beings?”

Those are some of the really hard questions in the current stem-cell debate. When a 60 Minutes reporter asks them, and compels Art Caplan to answer them, and invites Robby George to comment on the answers, we’ll know that the program’s reputation for forcing the issues is warranted.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.