A significant priority for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in the debate over the 2005 budget is to encourage the legislature to make sure that research based on the destruction of human embryos is not part of any "biotechnology initiative" included in the budget.
This debate also reveals how the grounds for disvaluing human life before birth have expanded in recent years.
The Supreme Court defined the right to abortion in 1973 by placing it among those personal activities protected by a "right to privacy" in the Constitution. The unborn child may have a right to life in theory, the court reasoned, but it must give way to the mother's right to decide what happens to her own life and body.
The ensuing debate over the wisdom of the court's action has usually involved arguments over the relative importance of the child's life versus the mother's right to make a very personal choice.
Value of embryo
Whether or not one accepts what the Supreme Court did in 1973, the debate over whether embryos should be destroyed in order to procure "embryonic stem cells" for research purposes is much different.
When we discuss scientific research, we are no longer talking about a personal choice in the privacy of someone's bedroom or a doctor's office. We are talking about something much more public. The value of the embryo is not measured against personal privacy but in social goods like curing disease and economic development.
It's hard to overstate the significance of this shift. For, if society embraces the view that developing human life is secondary to commercial enterprise, one may rightly ask, where do we go next?
Similar to slavery
Our nation faced a similar moment in the 1850's when the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dredd Scott decision opened the door for slavery to expand into the Territories. The act and the decision meant that a moral evil that was tolerated in states where it existed was to be permitted in places that were previously "off limits." Many in the North were prepared to accept the expansion of slavery - including an increase in the number of slaves - as a price to pay for the "public good" of westward expansion.
Lincoln grasped the importance of this shift. He argued that if slavery could not be kept out of the territories, others would assert the right to introduce it in a "free" state like Illinois. He also reasoned that if the law could deny equality to some people, it could later deny equality to others.
Lincoln further understood that his generation faced a different moral choice than did the nation's founders. Accepting the reality of slavery as a compromise to form the union was one thing. Fostering the spread of slavery to secure southern support for western expansion was another.
It was a compromise he was not willing to make. Moreover, Lincoln asserted that the good of western expansion was attainable without the expansion of slavery. Time vindicated his views.
Making choice today
We face a similar choice today. Will we follow the lead of Stephen A. Douglas and accept the proposition that a weakened respect for human life is an acceptable price to pay for economic development?
Or, will we follow Lincoln's example and pursue a social good without sacrificing our nation's ideals?
John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
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