Culture of Death Watch
Stem Cells and Shadow Boxing
by David A. Wemhoff
“This above all:
To thine own self, be true,
For it must follow, as dost the night to day,
That canst not then be false to any man.”
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3
We hear over and over about the secularists, and the liberals, and those who want to allow for this or that, all of which is against our beliefs. That which we believe has been formed by the Roman Catholic Church as it teaches the Roman Catholic Faith. Whether it is abortion, women’s rights, homosexual rights, contraception, taking Christ out of Christmas, or striking prayer to Jesus in the State House, we are told that it is the liberals, the secularists, or some other amorphous group, that is pushing an agenda that is “un-Christian”. At some point, we come to the realization that this worldview which creates this liberal/secularist category is flawed because things never seem to get better. The editor of this magazine has called this situation, the one in which we find ourselves in 21st Century USA, as the “Whig view of history” while others have called it “shadow boxing”.
There are a lot of problems with not accurately identifying one’s temporal enemies. An initial one is that you call your own identity into question. Another is the failure to accurately analyze the social and political dynamics of the day. Without honest analysis of the situation and the opponents, you cannot expect to win at anything--whether it is a ball game, a chess match, court cases, or war. Without names, faces, and groups, the enemy becomes some large, undefined, all-powerful entity that surrounds us. Indeed, neighbors, co-workers, friends, family, and others become members of the vast secular conspiracy to de-Christianize our world which the “mainstream media” gleefully reports and against which “conservatives” (whatever that means) continually screech as they hold out their hand for hundreds of millions of dollars in (tax-deductible) donations.
When we ascribe to this “shadow boxing” view of dealing with enemies of the Faith, the Church, and all that is decent and right, it follows that our passion for the fight is diminished, our tactics are muted, and our will is weakened. The reason is that out of fear of offending those around us as we discussed above, we tend to act more with a concern for being polite, than with being successful and faithful. When viewpoints and beliefs and agendas are presented devoid of their roots, then people are kept from organizing effectively in their own natural groups to protect their interests. At the same time, the principles of unity of these natural groups are subverted, and they fragment into ineffective clusters, or, worse yet, individuals susceptible to the whims of public opinion manipulators far away.
Perhaps what is most nefarious about this whole situation is the elevation of these “secular” beliefs to a level of respectability. These beliefs become institutionalized as legitimate viewpoints that people can have and hold, all to their own and to society’s detriment. Opposing these ideas can only be within the boundaries of the pre-ordained limits of discourse. In other words, conservatives oppose liberals. Faith communities oppose secularists. Traditionalists oppose progressives. What does it all mean, you ask. It means this is how we are all controlled—we create our own illusion of doing something when in reality we are just running in place.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the motion picture The Matrix resonated with so many people—though they were unable to articulate just why that was so. The premise of the motion picture is that human beings are being “grown” and used as sources of electrical and biochemical energy to fuel a system run by robots with artificial intelligence. The world as we know it no longer exists and human beings, isolated as individuals in “pods” where their biochemical energy is “harvested” for the machines, live in a dream world which is called “the Construct”. Each human creates their own illusions in the movie, but these are just illusions and they have no real power as cables, tubes and machines keep their bodies locked in place. Self-determination is achievable only by withdrawing from “the Construct” and living a hard, and hunted, life, as a rebel or outsider. In many regards, this motion picture is an allegory for the reality of American society today.
Once we accept the conservative-liberal, faith community-secular dichotomies established by the powerful in this society (I’ll refer to them as the Regime), and once we craft our arguments and order our thinking in accordance with this schema, it’s over. Once you buy into the modern day Construct, you’ve lost. To quote a hometown sports announcer at the end of the fourth quarter of a football match, “That’s the game, folks!”
Roman Catholics effectively consent to control by the powerful in the society when we accept the legitimacy of the liberal-conservative, secular-faith communities categories. These powerful ones, the ones who set the terms of the debate, are not Roman Catholics. They do not share Roman Catholic beliefs and values, and they do not act in accordance with the Faith.
One of the best examples of this discussion is the embryonic stem cell debate.
On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush, capping a long-running debate, announced to the nation that “I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines where the life and death decision has already been made. This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.”
Bush was immediately criticized by a lot of groups, to include the American Catholic Bishops. To their credit, the Bishops did allow Dr. Anton-Lewis Usala to articulate the Catholic position against embryonic stem cell research early in 2001. He wrote: “Catholic teaching strongly opposes any procedure that willfully terminates innocent human life, from the time of conception until natural death. Jesus Christ taught that each human being is important to God, and each is responsible for his or her own actions. Individuals will be judged not by the goodness of those around them, but by how well they personally have lived according to God's Word.”
Dr. Usala made a haunting observation that signaled the Church’s approach to the matter. He wrote: “As I testified to a Senate subcommittee on this issue last September , it became very evident that while religious arguments would be politely listened to, they served as a convenient opportunity to dismiss contrary views. Many legislators take a literalist view of `separation of Church and State,’ hence they dismiss religious arguments as perhaps a valid personal view, but not worthy of a substantive response in a secular arena.” The Faith would not be spoken in public for fear it would not be effective or convincing, yet religion proved to be the decisive factor in the entire controversy. And how is it that the exhortations of St. Paul, and the examples of countless saints and martyrs were forgotten?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not known for standing up to the dominant culture. The Catholic Bishops in the United States tend to fall in line with the worldview of politics and society that the elites in America have foisted on all of us. A quick review of the USCCB website sees that their material concerning information and teachings on the issues of the day are organized as one would expect from the Hollywood-New York culture shapers. There is “Social Justice”, “Family, Laity, Women & Youth”, “Migrants & Refugees”, and “Pro-Life”. These separate categories in no way articulate a comprehensive, and hence Catholic, view of how such things as personal morality and social justice are to be integrated to form a coherent approach to living lives, and ordering society for the betterment of all and the salvation of souls. The sad thing is that history is full of examples of how societies should be organized for the common good. If only the USCCB would try.
The decision to fight the stem-cell issue on the terms set by the American Regime, which, is to say, to fight in “secular” terms, was a mistake on the most fundamental of levels. It ignored the reality that people speak, act, and live, largely out of their beliefs which are formed by religion, and environment. And the reality is that in the embryonic stem-cell debate, the conflict is fundamentally one between Judaism and Roman Catholicism.
Political operative William Saletan, chief national correspondent of Slate.com, saw this basic fact first hand and for himself. (Slate.com was originally created by Microsoft about ten years ago but in December, 2004 was purchased by The Washington Post.) Writing in March, 2005, he authored a posting entitled “Oy Vitae—Jews vs. Catholics in the Stem Cell Debate.” Saletan observed the President’s Council on Bioethics discuss the issue of embryonic stem cell research and he found that “the reactions fell into two camps. Catholics leaned one way, Jews the other.” Leon Kass, the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, said that a ban on funding of destructive embryo research “wasn’t written at Sinai.” Then, according to Saletan, Kass said “And even the things that were written at Sinai are’—he groped for a rabbinical exit—`under review’.”
Later, Saletan flew to the bioethics conference at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome as the guest of Eric Cohen, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a protégé of Leon Kass. It was while in Rome that Saletan met Father Nicanor Austriaco a well known Dominican who earned a doctorate in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who frequently writes and speaks on stem cell issues. Saletan wrote that Fr. Austriaco also saw a “Catholic-Jewish” difference on the matter and added “Catholics follow streamlined authority. Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason.”
A commentator to the article almost immediately wrote “the mishnah (nidda 30a) seems fairly clear that jewish tradition and law don’t consider an embryo/zygote before 40 days to be possibly considered a human being.” [sic] This blogger knew what he or she was talking about.
Israel21c bills itself as a not-for-profit corporation that works to “inform Americans about 21st century Israel, its people, its institutions and its contributions to global society”. On April 25, 2005, Roberta Neiger authored an article entitled “Israeli Scientists Pushing the Boundaries of Stem Cell Research”. In it, she writes that “Jewish Biblical and Talmudic Law holds that the embryo acquires full human status only at birth. In connection to the pre-implantation embryo, Jewish Law dictates that genetic materials outside the uterus have no legal status since they are not part of a human being until implanted in the womb.” She noted that an embryo acquires some human status only after the first 40 days, and, so the creation of embryos by cloning for therapeutic purposes is justifiable.
Professor Michel Revel, the Israeli representative at UNESCO’s Bioethics Committee, stated: “Unlike the Catholic view that places the beginning of a human life at the moment of conception, Judaism believes that human rights are acquired progressively. Traditional sources regard the fertilized egg and sperm as `water-life’ material until after 40 days”.
Judaism is opposed to, and irreconcilable with, the Roman Catholic Faith on this issue, among many others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states in Section 2274: “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.” And, in Section 2275: ”It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”
It is this fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic Faith in particular, and Christianity in general, on one hand, and Judaism on the other, that has led to varying laws between Western countries and Israel. Neiger reports that it is this fundamental difference that has led to the emergence of an Israeli-Jewish industry in the field of stem cell research. Neiger writes, “Perhaps most significant is the fact that ethical issues, which have curbed stem cell research in the US and elsewhere, are muted in Israel. There is no law regulating stem cell research in Israel, and use of embryos for such research is allowed. In the United States, embryonic stem cell research is a burning issue that played a major role in the recent presidential election.”
The International Stem Cell Forum confirms that Israeli law on the subject, entitled Prohibition of Genetic Intervention Law (Human cloning and Genetic Manipulation of Reproductive Cells) 5759-1999, , allows for the manipulation of embryonic stem cells from an early state of development. Of course, this “manipulation” results in the killing of a tiny human being.
Additionally, the Forum noted that Israel is very permissive in allowing embryonic stem cell research because “Judaism places a high value on the religious obligation of treating serious illness even if it requires transgression of religious commands such as the sanctity of Sabbath. …With respect to the embryo prior to implantation, it is further viewed that there is no potential of the fertilized egg or the blastocyst to initiate pregnancy and develop to birth unless there is a parental decision to do so.” Hence, we hear in Roe v. Wade and the “pro-choice” position, the echoes of Jewish religious beliefs.
Jews, and Israel, have aggressively acted on their religious beliefs. Realizing that Israelis are in a position of prominence in the field of stem cell research, Neiger writes “[A]ccording to [Dr. Arik] Hasson, Israel is disproportionately represented in all the natural sciences. In many US universities, he says, the number of Israeli graduate students in biology-related fields approaches that of their colleagues from India and China, countries that have populations more than 200 times greater than Israel’s.“
As a result, Israeli academics and industry are “pushing the boundaries of an already cutting-edge field: stem cell research”. While Neiger listed seven Israeli companies involved in this field, there are at least ten, which contrasts sharply with only five United States companies involved with working on existing stem cell lines.
Indeed, Jews have been leaders in embryonic stem cell research. The Jewish Weizmann Institute’s Leo Sachs demonstrated in the 1960s that stem cells could be grown in a culture. Israeli Doctors Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor of the Technion and Rambam Medical Center and Binyamin Reubinoff of Hebrew University were some of the first to isolate stem cells from human embryos in 1998. Researchers from Hebrew University lead in the areas of describing genetic modifications of stem cells and differentiation of embryonic stem cells in cultures. Cell Cure, an Israeli company, was the first to show how transplanted human embryonic stem cells work in animal models with Parkinson’s disease. Science Magazine named Israel as the world leader in stem cell research in 2002.
In 2004, The Consortim Bereshit for Cell Therapy was formed in Israel under the Chief Scientist’s Office of the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Iris Lewin, Bereshit’s technical manager, told Neiger that the Consortium’s “main goal is to create embryonic stem cells that will be FDA approved.” According to the Vision Statement of the Bereshit Consortium as quoted by International Stem Cell Forum, the Consortium is “To create and advance a cluster of cell therapy companies in Israel that will acquire a global leadership position in the field, providing generic enabling technologies for cell therapy and stem cell derived products and new human Embryonic SC [stem cell] lines.”
The Consortium members are academic groups such as Ben Gurion University, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Hadassah Medical Center, as well as a number of companies whose mission is to advance stem cell research. Some of the member companies of the Consortium are Gamida-Cell, whose Chief Executive Officer is Dr. Arik Hasson. Dr. Hasson has claimed, according to Israel21c, that embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, are capable of becoming any cell, and develop spontaneously into organs. And, he is of the belief that researchers will be able to determine which organs can be formed by these embryonic stem cells.
As of May, 2006, the Israel Life Science Industry (ILSI) noted that the Consortium’s “general consensus” was that both embryonic and adult stem cell research should continue, even though there were advantages and disadvantages to each. The Consortium referenced a stated need to obtain “human embryonic cell lines free of contamination by animal components” since so many of these cell lines were apparently contaminated. ILSI identified two objectives involving embryonic stem cells. These were “up scaling of embryonic…stem cells, culturing modalities and methods for large-scale production of stem/progenitor cells and other cells for cellular therapy”: and the “[d]erivation and establishment of new lines of feeder-layer-free human embryonic stem cells (hESC) or with FDA approved human feeder layer.”
In January, 2005, the Director General of the Ministry of Health and the President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities formed the Israeli Stem Cell Research Forum which is administered by the Ministry of Health. The vision statement of that entity announced the intent to “support the use of the revolutionary principles of the new stem cell and regenerative biology”.
Stem cell research is very expensive. Clinical trials and medical expertise are needed to do this kind of work, and both come with a large price tag. It is difficult finding private money to support the work, because private individuals and companies are generally risk adverse when new technology is being developed as in the case with embryonic stem cell research. So, government money is needed to advance the research to a point that industry will get interested in making investments that stand a reasonable chance of paying off, or returning a profit. In other words, once the government, which is funded by tax dollars, does the “heavy lifting”, then private companies can walk in and make a profit from the result of the research.
Add to all of this a report from the United Kingdom’s Department of Health that “Israel has no dedicated funding for stem cell research, and…it is at risk of losing its leading position,” and the plot thickens. The scarcity of funding, and the need for foreign subsidies, is admitted by the Israelis. The August 5, 2005 edition of The Forward referred to a report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that recognized this need.
In light of all of this, it is not surprising how the parties lined up in the fight for federal and state funding of embryonic stem cell research. Joining the Roman Catholics for protecting the unborn were the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family and other Christian groups. Pushing for federal funding were the Orthodox Union (the oldest and perhaps the most powerful Jewish organization), the National Association of Judaism and Medicine, and Hadassah, which is the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
The year 2005 was indeed an important one in the fight over government funding of embryonic stem cell research. With 37 states considering stem-cell legislation of one form or another, one would think that everyone would be too busy to notice what was going on in Washington. However, Republican Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor from Tennessee and the Senate Majority Leader, stole the show with a speech he delivered on July 29 from the floor of the Senate.
Frist announced that he believed the United States Government should expand the funding for embryonic stem cell research. Such a break from Bush’s position of four years earlier troubled a lot of Catholics who knew that there were two bills pending in Congress. In the House of Representatives, HR 810 would expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research beyond the limits Bush imposed. (Senate Resolution 471 was similar to HR 810). HR 2520 (with its Senate version, S. 1317) would allocate federal funds to study stem cells from adults and from umbilical cord blood, not human embryos. The Catholics and other Christians supported HR 2520 and S. 1317. The Jews wanted HR 810 and S. 471.
Frist’s speech shocked Catholics, and apparently, Jews. According to The Forward, several weeks earlier an unnamed “Frist staffer told delegates to Hadassah’s national convention in Washington that his boss would oppose the measure” that would have provided more funding to embryonic stem cell research (S.471; HR. 810).
While Catholics and Christian leaders criticized Frist’s about-face, the powerful Jewish Orthodox Union (officially, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of AmericaTM), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Hadassah were delighted. Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said that the stem-cell issue was the primary issue for his organization.
Indeed, it was a primary issue for many Jews.
In July, 2001, Embryonic Stem Cell International (ESI) was created in July, 2001, according to a press release from the University of California Santa Barbara. This Israeli organization, founded just before the President’s speech of August 9 of that year and the promulgation of the official National Institute of Health policy directive on stem cell research, established a technique “to develop embryonic stem cells from surplus embryos, `in order not to waste them’.” Dr. Binyamin Reubinoff of the Hadassah Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, has been deeply involved in trying to obtain stem cells from human embryos for a long time.
According to a July 11, 2004 report from Israel21c, Reubinoff’s group produced six, of the twelve, human embryonic stem cell lines that qualified for federal funding under the President’s decision of August, 2001. So, the Israelis stood to gain enormously by Bush’s announced policy, which appeared to stop the killing of embryos. Not only would they to get money for research, but they had obtained a real competitive advantage over other groups and companies by virtue of garnering such a large percentage of the existing embryonic stem cell lines.
That did not appear to be enough. Reubinoff said that “It [the August, 2001 policy] may affect progress in the field if Bush stopped the process of more liberal funding … . It has an influence on scientists and the availability for money for research.” And, it was Reubinoff’s group, Hadassah, that appeared influential in changing Frist’s viewpoint. In May, 2005, Frist was hosted at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center where he was briefed on all of the advances in stem-cell research. Later, Frist supposedly praised the efforts of Hadassah during a meeting with the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), a key player in the Israel Lobby according to the paper released in March of this year by scholars Walt and Mersheimer.
Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family was perhaps the most vocal in castigating Frist. On August 3, 2005, during a syndicated radio show, Dobson said that embryonic stem cell research exhibited a lack of morality reminiscent of Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates. The reaction from the Jews was immediate and furious. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said “We are concerned because it trivializes history”, making an obvious reference to the Holocaust. Foxman demanded Dobson apologize.
Dobson would not apologize. Indeed, he repeated his comments the following Monday on the popular Fox Network program, “Hannity & Colmes.”
Focus on the Family went one step further. It exhorted all of its readers and members to email or write those who criticized Dobson. That included Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and any of the multitude of Jewish groups that dared attack Dobson. The Christians were urged to respectfully tell the Jews and pro-embryonic stem cell research organizations that their position on embryonic stem cell research was immoral. The Christians did as they were asked, and they did so in large numbers. The stem cell organizations were inundated with criticism.
HR 810, along with S. 471 went down to defeat. Instead, HR 2520 and S. 1317, both of which permitted the expansion of federal funding to “provide for the collection and maintenance of human cord blood stem cells for the treatment of patients and research” became public law.
Dobson would not retract his statements. He did not hide the truth. He judged the actions of death camp doctors and embryonic stem cell doctors by the same moral standard. Christians told Jews and the pro-embryonic stem cell crowd they were morally wrong. Dobson did not apologize for Christianity.
And so the Christians won.
David A. Wemhoff is an attorney. He is the author of John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and the American Proposition: How the CIA's Doctrinal Warfare Program Changed the Catholic Church.
This article was published in the June, 2006 issue of Culture Wars.
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