George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

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The Hopeful Future in Bioethics
Interview With Richard Doerflinger

In this interview with ZENIT, Richard Doerflinger speaks about this battle and how Catholics can stay informed in the midst of rapidly changing realities in the field of bioethics.

Q: With so many scientific advances, staying up to date on the battle between the culture of life and the culture of death can be difficult. What are the best resources for Catholics to stay tuned-in to the debate?

Doerflinger: Two Web sites monitoring these advances from a pro-life perspective, and, are of enormous help in following the science and the public debate. The Pro-Life Secretariat's page at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also has many fact sheets, letters to Congress, testimonies and articles.

These issues also receive increasing attention from good national publications such as Our Sunday Visitor, National Catholic Register, First Things, and -- for a serious, in-depth treatment of the ethical issues -- the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

Q: In the United States, many pro-lifers have adopted the strategy of "chipping away" at Roe vs. Wade instead of seeking to overturn it. Is that strategy working?

Doerflinger: I would describe the strategy as chipping away at Roe vs. Wade in order to overturn it. The Supreme Court's recent decision on partial-birth abortion suggests it is effective. In the process of upholding a ban on an especially heinous late-term procedure that kills the mostly born child, the court in a new way has begun honestly confronting the brutal reality of abortion in general, its harmful effects on women, and its role in eroding the ethical integrity of medicine -- and has frankly admitted that past court decisions departed from usual standards of review and evidence to give special protection to this grisly business.

The public debate on this procedure has also led many more young people to affirm a pro-life position. But like slavery and racial segregation, abortion is a fundamental evil that will not be eliminated all at once, by a single decision or event. We need to change attitudes and perceptions as well as laws, and this will take time. Our progress may seem agonizingly slow, but this cause deserves our courage and fortitude as well as our patience.

Q: U.S. President George Bush recently released an executive order that promotes research on pluripotent stem cell lines that are not derived from human embryos. What effect will this have on the stem cell debate?

Doerflinger: The president's executive order gives a boost to some of the most creative cutting-edge research being done today, such as new findings on ways to "reprogram" adult cells to have the versatility of embryonic stem cells. He is also calling the bluff of scientists who insist that "pluripotent" stem cells have the greatest medical promise, by saying in effect: Fine, then let's obtain that kind of cell without violating moral norms as well.

Other important developments include the enactment in 2005 of a federal law establishing a nationwide public bank for cord blood stem cells, and the recent introduction in Congress of a "Patients First Act" to advance adult and cord blood stem cell avenues that have begun to show clinical promise in early trials. Each of these initiatives takes away another specious argument for claiming that we must destroy human life to have medical progress.

Q: How can we get the battle for life away from semantics, so that people come to see life issues as less about ideology and more about science?

Doerflinger: First, people need to understand that not everything said by a scientist is necessarily "science." Some scientists today are acting more like lobbyists or public relations directors, or even outright frauds like Dr. Hwang of South Korea.

A glance at any good embryology textbook will tell you that the life of a human individual begins with that first one-celled embryo -- so when a scientist intones gravely that we have no idea when human life begins, get ready for a fantasy ride. And when a scientist launches into wild and often self-serving claims about the "promise" and "miracle" of embryonic stem cells, far too few non-scientists have the courage simply to ask: "And what's your evidence for that?"

The actual evidence for future "miracle cures" from destroying embryos is very slim indeed. It is the scientific method that is showing us more promising and more immediate clinical benefits from adult and cord blood stem cells that pose no moral problem.

Q: What do Catholics in the United States need to be a better force for the defense of life? Are they educated in life issues?

Doerflinger: It is difficult to keep educated when new challenges keep emerging so quickly. But I think that most churchgoing Catholics have the right instincts and the right values when it comes to revering human life -- and thankfully, this is often most clear in our younger generation.

We need to inform and develop these attitudes with a better understanding of the Church's teaching as well as of the scientific and medical realities, if we are to be effective advocates for life.

Through articles, newsletters, homily suggestions, educational resources, and especially the Respect Life Program that comes to parishes each year on the first Sunday in October, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is working to assist that process.

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