Abortion, Euthanasia, Stem Cell Research, Oh My!

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav once said, “The world is a narrow ridge. The key to crossing is not to be afraid.”

We take this to heart this morning as we consider some of the most controversial, hot-button ethical issues of our time: abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. The narrow ridge that each of these separately and together represent. The key to crossing.

But why these three issues, and why now?

Simply this: because of current events close to home and close to heart. Just two weeks ago, on May 31, we heard the news about Dr. George Tiller, shot to death as he stood in the foyer of his church in Wichita Kansas. His women’s health clinic had long been a flash point in the battle over abortion rights because it was one of the few that performed late-term abortions. Dr. Tiller’s murder is especially ironic because just several weeks before, President Obama had delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, talking about “how we must live together as one human family” in order to address the pressing problems of our times, including “violent extremism.” He says, “The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without … demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” “Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion,” says President Obama, and then, two weeks later, as if to underscore his point, Dr. Tiller is murdered. A great tragedy. My heart goes out to his family as well as to all health care workers and professionals who put it on the line every day to protect women’s health and constitutional rights. Just right across the street—the Feminist Women’s Health Center….

It’s close to home and close to heart. And then there is euthanasia. Regarding this, the current event that comes to mind happened back in late February and early March. I remember opening up my Atlanta Journal-Constitution and reading the March 1 front-page headline: “Suicide group tests society’s limits.” Here’s the first several lines of the article: “Critics charge that the Georgia-based group Final Exit Network is undermining national efforts to make assisted suicide universally accepted and legal. But supporters and members of Final Exit Network said the group merely wants to extend the right to die beyond people who are terminally ill to include those who simply believe their quality of life isn’t worth living. They believe Georgia—where four members of the group are being charged with assisted suicide after a Georgia Bureau of Investigation sting operation last week—is now the new battleground in the fight to extend this right of ‘self-deliverance’ to those whom doctors have not diagnosed as terminally ill.” These are the opening lines of the article. There had been a sting operation, in this state. Four people charged, one of whom (I learned later) is a Unitarian Universalist. In a very public way, the euthanasia issue had come home to roost.

Reading through the article a little further, I saw a quote from the controversial assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, indicating his disagreement with what the Final Exit Network group is doing, as well as his firm belief that physician-assisted suicide should be reserved only for people judged to have no more than six months to live. And I was struck by this. A diversity of opinion about what a good death means, within the euthanasia movement as in all other movements. Of course. Diversity of perspective on when the prolongation of life goes against human dignity and is truly worse than death. Publicly the debate goes on, and it goes on privately as well, even when an aging parent has made clear his or her do-not-resuscitate request, and yet in the heat of the moment, faced with the doctor’s urgency to save life at all costs, faced with our own grief at the loss of a loved one, do we withhold antibiotics or surgery—do we say no to life-support—and allow death to take its natural course? What do we do?

It’s close to home and close to heart. Abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research as well. Last week, a congregant shared a story with me about her grand-nephew who has hemophilia. Born with it. Discovered by his parents in a horrible moment when, after his circumcision, he would not stop bleeding. From that time till now, he’s had to take a special infusion twice weekly—delivered by needle—so that his blood will clot normally. Yet there is hope that this twice-a-week needle regimen might end someday, through stem cell research. When Peter’s sister, Selena, was born, the parents had her umbilical cord frozen and handed over to a private research facility. In five years, the private researchers say, they hope to have achieved enough progress in working with the stem cells in Selena’s umbilical cord that they can be used on Peter, enabling his body to produce the blood-clotting factor on his own.

A cure like this is just the tip of the iceberg. Diabetes, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, stroke, lymphoma, infertility, cancer: all of these and more are potentially resolvable through stem cell research. No wonder some people call the stem cell “the Aladdin’s Lamp of biology.” Rub it, and a genie pops out and grants wishes. But President Bush wasn’t buying, because for him, days-old embryos are destroyed in the process, and he sees this as the taking of life. Some liberals stood with him too, although for very different reasons. Pro-choice feminists concerned about how such research might turn women’s eggs and wombs into commodities. Environmentalists wary of biotechnology and cautious about genetic tinkering. An odd-couple of conservative and liberal standing together—the result being the banning of federal funding for research into stem lines created after 2001. Only research on the 22 stem cell lines already in existence would be federally funded, but the problem here is that these lines “lack genetic diversity and were generated with early methods that produced poorer quality stem cell lines than are now available.” This last point comes from Unitarian Universalist Molly Walsh, who adds that they “also include no disease-specific lines, so scientists can’t use [them] to study diseases. [To make matters even worse,] the original lines were all isolated using a mouse-based media, and these lines would run the risk of introducing mouse viruses to humans, so they will not be usable to treat humans.” It’s true: newer and better stem cell lines could still be developed and studied, but without any federal finding, and this is the big problem. As a 2001 Chicago Tribune article puts it, “federal finding is key because it can unleash a huge army of university researchers who could greatly speed up important discoveries. Without federal money, embryonic research would proceed at a snail’s pace in privately funded labs.” In 2001, the Aladdin’s Lamp of biology was within reach, but President Bush stepped back.

But that was then, and this is now. This past March, President Obama reversed the ban on federal funding, meaning that the pace of research would step up tremendously with a focus on newer stem cell lines. “Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident,” he said, and then he promised his administration would make up for the ground lost under his predecessor. “Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. […] But I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

So much has happened in just the past three months. Abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research coming close to home and close to heart.

We are braving the narrow ridge. And now it is time to ask, What’s the key to crossing? How to move forward?

We know what Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav says about this: Be not afraid.

In particular, there are three sources of encouragement that I would have us consider today.

The first is this: that we should not feel like failures if these controversies are hard to resolve and evince a “push-down, pop-up effect”—as in, we push down conflict over here, but over there it pops up again…. We should not feel like failures because abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research are all new faces of an ancient storyline which is this: human ingenuity engaged to ease suffering and enhance life, with the ironic result that feathers are ruffled and arguments explode over limits, over the difference between playing doctor and playing God. The storyline is ancient, and we do well to remember this in the present, as hot-off-the-press news breaks over us like a tide.

The specific myth I’m thinking of is at least 3000 years old, from ancient Greece. Prometheus, who is said to have created human beings out of clay, in the image of the Gods. Prometheus, who gifted humans with the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. Prometheus, who saw his children’s suffering and, out of compassion, wanted to improve their lot in life—so he gave them technologies to focus their minds and strengthen their hands, including the use of fire. He stole fire from the Gods and gave it to us. Why he had to steal it is an open question. But steal it he did, and for this, he was punished by Zeus. Chained to a rock for all eternity, where an eagle would come everyday to feed on his liver (which, because Prometheus is an immortal, would regenerate overnight, allowing the whole scene to repeat ad infinitum). It’s an ugly picture. Vicious harm coming to one who sought only to help humanity, because in doing so he transgressed limits established by the Gods. He stole.

It’s fascinating to take this myth and overlay it on the issues we’re talking about today. All sorts of resonances emerge. One in particular relates to the role of technological innovation in driving conflict. For Prometheus, it’s the arts of civilization, especially firemaking. Today, it’s the availability of modern abortion technologies that are safe and ensure women’s reproductive health; it’s aggressive end-of-life care protocols like ventilator support, resuscitation, and the feeding tube that can keep people alive long after their quality of life has diminished irreparably; it’s also powerful microscopes and lab techniques that enable work on a cellular level. What the ancient myth is trying to say is that technological innovation changes our world immeasurably—generates all sorts of new questions—and thus can’t help but spark conflict. It did for Prometheus, and it does for us, it will continue to do so in the future.

The task before us, as we walk the narrow ridge, is only to do all that can be done. Not to shoulder a burden of shame for being unable to clean up that which is inherently messy—and by that I mean the human condition. Technological innovation will shake things up. Established orders will be transgressed, in pursuit of what some people think is progress. Each side will see the other as some kind of thief, and feelings will run high. (Remember this last point in particular, when we get to a quote from Tom DeLay in a moment.)

It’s just the human condition, and we can do only all that can be done. This honesty about ourselves can be a source of encouragement for us, and now here is another source: this insight: that acknowledging the complexity of issues surrounding abortion and euthanasia and stem cell research is OK to do—that it doesn’t represent some kind of evasion or avoidance of duty, as when some politicians filibuster a bill to death, or some fundamentalists spout bumper-sticker theology, as in “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” The issues are just too complex for this. Each specific case has unique aspects that can’t be ignored as we evaluate them. There can be multiple moral principles that appear to apply equally and yet are in conflict with each other. There can even be a single moral rule we all agree on—people on all sides of the debate—and yet this single rule is interpreted and applied differently.

Take the Terri Schiavo case. For about 15 years, Terri had been in a persistent vegetative state. If you had looked at a CAT scan of her brain, you would have seen that large portions of it were gone, replaced by cerebrospinal fluid. Recovery was simply not possible. So in 2000, Florida state judge George Greer ruled that Terri would not have wanted to continue living under her circumstances because they were undignified, the quality of her life was negligible, so he ordered her feeding tube removed. That was in 2000, and after that, the controversy only increased. The tube was removed only to be replaced by virtue of a civil suit coming from Terri’s parents. They wanted her to remain alive as long as possible because they believed that all life, no matter what its quality happens to be, is sacred. On March 18, 2005, Terri’s feeding tube was once again removed. That’s when congressional leaders decided to intervene. House Majority Leader (at the time) Tom Delay called it “an act of medical terrorism” and also said, “one thing that God has brought us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America.” That’s what he said—and I wonder if this is how Zeus might have sounded, when he found out about Prometheus stealing fire—all self-righteous and pompous…. In the end, in an act that was widely hailed as unconstitutional, all but five House Republicans voted for emergency legislation throwing the Schiavo case into the federal courts, the Senate agreed, and President Bush signed it into law.

It was a mess. Feelings running high on all sides. Highly ironic, since all sides saw themselves as speaking on behalf of human dignity. The Golden Rule. Love One Another. Do No Harm. Revere Life. This is the spiritual core of morality, the center, the essence, and we are united in this. Every religion on this planet, from every age, says the same basic thing. Love One Another. How can we disagree on that?

Yet this core religious value, which unites us in the abstract: what happens when we use it to help us figure out social policy—or the politics of whether or not to remove Terri’s feeding tube? All of a sudden, we find ourselves deeply divided, because what does Human Dignity mean, exactly? How do you interpret it in terms of legislation, or rules?

Human Dignity: these two simple words hide a world of complexity. Are we talking quality of life, so when the quality is poor, one’s human dignity is violated and the right-to-die practice of euthanasia is justified? Or does human dignity mean the sanctity of life no matter what, no matter what the condition, so even if you have someone in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years you keep the feeding tube in, because life is an absolute value, life is a great mystery, like a star shining, and who are we to say exactly when the shine should end?

In other words, we’re not all reasoning from the same set of premises. We might possess a different set of facts, or a different set of errors. How about different social biases? Different takes on science, or scripture? Different emotional premises? Though we all start with the same Golden Rule, different premises will lead us to different conclusions.

Things can’t help but be complex, and communication difficult, when a reality like this is before us. That’s why President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame is so important and yet another source of encouragement—the third and last source for our purposes here and now. How do we work through the conflicts? Not by “reducing those with differing views to caricature.” Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, for example, referring to Dr. George Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer,” saying “He’s guilty of Nazi stuff.” And then some liberal activists, on the other hand, taking the worst side of the pro-life camp (exemplified by people like Bill O’Reilly) and making it sound like this is the best it has to offer, and thus easily and instantly dismissing it.

Not like this. But through “fair-minded words.” “Because when we do that,” says President Obama, “when we open up our hearts and minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe, that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any women is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.’”

Life is perennially messy. The ancient myth of Prometheus tells us that. Yet we must again and again strive to find out how we can live together as one human family. Stop the increasing trend towards violence and hate speech. Hold the Bill O’Reilly’s of both the right and the left accountable. Begin again in love. Discover at least the possibility of common ground, and courageously move forward. That’s how we cross the narrow ridge. That’s how.

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