August 11, 2003

 

Dear Friends in Christ –

It is natural that we have been preoccupied this week with the tragic departure of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. from the teachings of the Bible and the Church regarding sexual practice. Anglicans worldwide (indeed Christians everywhere) have had their eyes on the Minneapolis General Convention, the debate regarding Gene Robinson, and the passing of a resolution that now formally recognizes a "local option" within ECUSA "communities of faith."

I myself have been bound up in praying, speaking and writing about these matters, and take them seriously indeed. However, we would be remiss not to take note of another tragic turn of events during this Convention. In the name of charity and science, delegates of the Convention have voted to turn their backs on the weakest members of our society. I mean, of course, the un-owned or disowned embryos that now will be used in stem cell research with the formal approval of the Episcopal Church. This August, a motion was passed, in which embryos were deemed suitable for stem cell research, as long as they are not offered through a business transaction, and as long as the biological parents (their "owners") are in agreement:

All this may seem, to the pragmatically minded, the best use of our "resources." Isn’t it true thatsuch embryos are only designed for the rubbish heap (or the lab sink) since their parents have no further use of them? Moreover, banning commercial transactions will prevent embryos being created for the sole use of research, a horrific specter from "utopian" literature. But such a pragmatic approach misses the mark. After all, these are not "resources" – they are underdeveloped human beings. Parents who have already had a successful implantation may have no further use for "extra" embryos – but what is God’s approach to these tiny persons? Commercial buying and selling of embryos is repellant – why should that be, unless they are more than commodities? It seems that hearts know better than heads. Extra embryos should not have been engineered from the beginning. Does "making use" of them erase that error? Indeed, pragmatism may be appealed to in order to rationalize our monstrous Frankenstein impulses. Stem cell research –despite the notorious "instability" of embryo stem cells—helps us to focus on the recipients’ benefit rather than the indecency of a baby whose sole "function" is to be harvested.

Maybe it is just too much for our imaginations to grasp. The insight of Frederica Matthewes Greene can help us here:

Now you must think of something very small: in a cold, dark place there are miniature children suspended in frost, snow babies, unmoving and unbreathing. They are everywhere, in ice orphanages across the country, and there are many of them, a couple of hundred thousand, myriad as the stars in the sky. But there is something smaller still. It is the individual cells that these sleeping bodies contain. Left intact and implanted in a womb, they would grow into a little boy or girl. Tweezered out by scientists they will grow, but only into tissue, like the stuffing inside a doll. Such a thing seems nightmarish, Frankensteinish, and the impulse is to say once again that our ability to do such things has outdistanced our ability to weigh whether we should. But there is unexplored hope here, the experts plead. Look at these people, young men in wheelchairs, old men shaking, children weak in their mother's arms. A few of these cells might grow and restore what has been lost. It might restore full health.

The cost? Nothing, really. Most of these sleeping snow babies are doomed never to wake. Their parents intentionally created far more embryos than they could use. Occasionally a couple asks to adopt an abandoned embryo by implantation, but far less than enough to rescue them all. Many of them would die in the rough process of implantation anyway. Yet if the parts were disassembled and tended they might improve another's life. To what can we liken such a plea? Is it like taking the corneas of an accident victim and using them to give a blind person sight? Or is it like harvesting skin from a Jewish corpse and using it to make a lampshade?

We try again to picture the tiny embryos and to feel sympathy for their condition. It doesn't come naturally. They don't look like babies. They look like blobs–what you can see, anyway, which is little larger than a pinpoint. They aren't warm and cuddly, but still and cold. This suspended existence looks like nothing in human experience–like nothing worth preserving. Why not just let them go, so they can be useful?

Herein lies the lie. Useful. Imagine a human being whose sole purpose is to be food for another human being. Did God ever create such a thing? Every human life is precious, unique, in ways only God knows–he has formed our hidden parts in secret, with care. Every one of us is an end, not a means. No one was made to be a lampshade. No one was made to supply body parts for another person that he still has need of for himself. ("Stem Cells and Starry Nights," Again magazine, Nov. 2001).

We may well lament the lack of respect for the Bible and tradition, and the slavish regard for 21st century eroticism shown by a majority of delegates to National Convention. Bishops from the third world tell us that the sexuality resolutions may well mean for the loss of Christian lives, as extremists "punish" the over-spill of the "Great Satan" in African countries. But there will be other tiny martyrs to the self-willed decisions of this notorious "synod" – tiny unborn persons whose "superfluous" existence and termination are now sanctioned in the name of utility. Let us lament the innocents and decry North American hardness of heart. Lord have mercy.