Academic journal article Theological Studies


Academic journal article Theological Studies


Article excerpt

In the past few years, appropriate care for the dying and stem cell research have been central to the bioethics literature. (1) Attention to the dying process follows liberalized euthanasia policy (in Oregon, the Netherlands, and Belgium) and a 2004 allocution of John Paul II mandating artificial nutrition and hydration of patients in a "persistent vegetative state." The visibility of stem cell research has been raised by advocacy for expanded U.S. government funding. Stem cell research is of immediate concern primarily to the privileged--yet commands a disproportionate share of bioethical analysis. The ethics of death and dying affects everyone at some time. The ethics of dying is the central focus of this article. But stem cell research usefully highlights inequities in health resources that affect the way many meet death, especially from preventable diseases.

Since 2001, the U.S. government has barred federal funding to create embryos for research or to derive new cells lines from embryos, while permitting use of stem cell lines already in existence. (2) Yet private stem cell institutes and public-private ventures at the state level are in the process of development. These would fund creation of research embryos and stem cell research, and would solicit private investment. The leader is California, where in 2004 voters passed a referendum committing $300 million of taxpayers' money a year, for a decade, to a state stem cell research institute, without any guarantee that revenues would flow back into state programs. (3) In April 2005, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued ethics guidelines for stem cell research stating that creation of research embryos is acceptable, including embryos made from combined human and animal gametes, as long as they do not involve primates, and are not grown longer than 14 days. (4) Yet, in March 2005, the 191 members of the U.N. General Assembly backed a committee resolution calling nations to ban all human cloning (including "therapeutic cloning" to obtain embryonic stem cells). Supported by the U.S.A. and strongly contested by Belgium, Britain, and China, the vote was split 84 to 34, with 37 abstentions. (5)

Most critical analysis centers on the moral status of embryos. (6) Theologians, especially Catholic theologians, tend to be "conservative" in comparison to scientists and investors. Much theological debate concerns whether the embryo has significant or even full "personal" status at conception, or whether it has lesser status until 14 days, the point at which "individuality" is established, and survival, if implanted, is much more likely. Another question is whether, even if an embryo is not a "person," it still has status sufficient to prohibit the creation of research embryos. (7) Some propose producing stem cells from entities similar to embryos, but lacking potential to become human individuals. (8)

The exact status of embryos is unlikely to be settled very soon. However, there could and should be agreement among theological bioethicists to bring a justice lens to stem cell research and the anticipated profits that largely motivate it.

Terminal illness and dying are of more acute global significance than genetic innovations. Physician-assisted suicide has been legal in Oregon since 1997. In 2002, the Netherlands and Belgium implemented legislation permitting direct euthanasia, making those two countries a testing ground for the social implications of normalizing medically assisted killing. Like stem cell debates, these discussions assume the availability of modern medicine. They are irrelevant for much of the world's population. Yet the concerns of theology and ethics as they pertain to health, illness, and death should be relevant to everyone.

Beyond euthanasia and artificial nutrition and hydration, bioethics, especially theological bioethics, should pay attention to the fact that a leading cause of death worldwide is poverty, which deprives many of life-saving care considered routine in the more "developed" countries. …

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