On the 27th of this month, in St. Peter's Square, Rome, the center of the Catholic world, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Josef Ratzinger, will lead a world-wide prayer for "all nascent (unborn) human life."
What does this mean?
It may well ignite another wave of ideological attacks on embryonic stem cell research.
According to Mary McClusky, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the event is intended to "increase awareness... about abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and other threats to children in their earliest days and weeks of life."
"... threats to children..."?
This irritates me very much, and I must speak.
First, my family is Catholic, though I am not. In order to marry Gloria, beloved wife of 41 years, I had to promise that my children would be raised Catholic, which promise I have kept.
Accordingly, I have met numerous priests and nuns over the years: several were wonderful, others I had no opinion, none I actively disliked.
But each, like me, was a fallible human being with faults and flaws -- and so is Josef Ratzinger, the man who holds the office of the Pope.
He can make mistakes, and he is capable of sins, both of commission, and omission: things he did, and things he failed to do -- because he is human, and can be wrong.
Threats to children?
Using the power of the Church to oppose research which might heal paralysis -- that would be a threat to one of my children -- Roman Reed is 35 years old, and 6'4" tall, but he is my son and always will be.
If the Pope comes on strong against research which offers hope to our loved ones, like my paralyzed son, then we must respond with equal fervor.
What will he say?
No way of knowing, of course.
It probably won't be the fire and brimstone like he used before becoming Pope.
In 2001, when America was debating stem cell research, Cardinal Ratzinger said:
"When, as today, there is a market in human organs, when fetuses are produced to make spare organs available, or to make progress in research and preventive medicine... the contempt for man that underlies it, when man is used and abused, leads -- like it or not -- to a descent into hell."
Sometimes it is hard to know what he is talking about -- if he is referring to embryonic stem cells, it is nonsense, of course, because there are no fetuses involved.
Also, he appears to be saying that stem cell scientists are going to hell. If so, we disagree. I can think of few people more deserving of Heaven than a scientist who dedicates his or her life to the agonizingly difficult fight for cure: to ease suffering and save lives.
The Pope may say something about supporting adult stem cell research, which virtually no one in the world objects to; it is like being in favor of air.
There has been talk about the Church financially supporting adult stem cell research. They can certainly afford it, being the world's largest property holder. I had heard they might chip in $3 million to help investigate intestinal stem cells -- which would be useful, though not a tremendous amount of money, compared to the need -- but the latest is they may not pony up the money after all.
The attack might lump together a whole bunch of issues, like this:
"When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless state of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed, or used as pure 'biological material', how can anyone deny that they are being treated not as 'someone' but as 'something'?" --Medical News Today, February 5, 2008
This attempts to link biomedicine not only to abortion (which is nonsense -- how can there be an abortion when there is no pregnancy?) but also In Vitro Fertility procedures (the Pope opposes IVF, although that reproductive assist has given life to over one million Catholics) and even end of life issues!
But here is his strongest statement, what everything else boils down to:
"Under no circumstances may a human being be manipulated or treated as a mere instrument for experimentation."
This argument is based on a central fallacy: that embryonic stem cell research endangers human beings -- who do not exist.
There are no "human beings...killed, or used as pure 'biological material'" in stem cell research. None. Not one. Zero. Zip. Nada.
How can there be a human being -- when there is no pregnancy?
Consider the process. Embryonic stem cells are taken from blastocysts left over from the In Vitro Fertility process, after the decision has been made to discard.
This is living tissue, not a life -- and I can prove that.
Unless a blastocyst is implanted in the wall of the uterus, there can be no pregnancy. Without the nurturing shelter of the mother's womb, it is biologically impossible to make a baby.
No mother, no child.
How do Catholics in general feel about embryonic stem cell research?
According to the latest Gallup Polls, 69 percent of Catholics support embryonic stem cell research, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans (73 percent). Born-again Christians, arguably the most conservative Protestants, support the research by a 58 percent majority.
Both Judaism and Islam support the research, as do faith communities around the world.
Does any of this really matter?
For sixteen years, my son Roman has been paralyzed from the shoulders down, resulting from a college football accident.
He never complains, but I am his father, and I see the Hell he goes through, every day.
Consider what has to happen every morning. His wife Terri swings his feet off the mattress, then grabs his arm and pulls him to a seated position. The wheelchair is brought close, and Terri braces it, so it won't tip over. Roman reaches his left hand to the far side of the chair. Having no finger use, he cannot grasp, but he can lean his nerveless palm on the armrest. Then, with a herculean effort, Roman shoves and drags his 235-pound body onto the chair.
That is just getting out of bed. All day is like that for him, mountain-climbing exertion for things you and I take for granted.
I ache to see him walk again, to run like he used to, swift as a lion to the kill: and to see his fingers close, strong but gentle, as he takes his children by the hand.
I am 65. If I live to my father's age (88, and he still plays tennis twice a week) I believe I will see that scientific miracle -- but not if research is stymied by ideological concerns.
There is a cost, if research is blocked.
In financial terms alone, the price of ideological interference in research is huge.
Consider the challenge.
Last year, the cost of medical care exceeded $2 trillion, more than this year's installment of the national debt. Three-quarters of that mountain of money went to caring for those with incurable disease or disability.
We can argue till we are blue in the face about how best to pay medical costs.
But the only way to reduce those costs is research for cure.
It is simple: if we cure a disease, we do not have to pay for it anymore. It is estimated that the polio vaccine, by eliminating that dread disease, saves America as much as one hundred million dollars a year in treatment costs. if we do not cure the chronically ill, we must care for them, forever. That is why medical expenses are skyrocketing.
There is also another cost. For those with incurable disease, no escape until they die, suffering is incalculable.
To block research is to condemn the suffering: both the children and adults with chronic illness, and their families who support them: those who pay the medical bills, and who endure the often exhausting work of providing care.
So what can we expect on November 27th, when the Pope steps up to the microphone, and has the world's attention? No way to tell.
But I would ask every supporter of the research -- especially every Catholic -- to get ready.
Write your letter now, or at least begin its planning in your mind. Never underestimate the power of a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Politicians have their staff read and collect constituent comments. Letters to the editor-- and communication directly to them -- are how they know what is important to us. Our governmental leaders must know we support the research.
If the Pope misspeaks, we must correct him. If he is mischaracterized by over-enthusiastic supporters, we must point that out as well.
It is our duty to respond: for ourselves, and our loved ones.
I believe in the mind of Man, and the caring heart of humanity. God gave us a brain; we must use it. I think we will do the right thing, and move the research forward.
But it will not happen by itself. It depends on our exertions.
As my son Roman always says:
"Take a stand with us today, in favor of medical research. Take a stand -- so one day, everybody can."