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Leap of Faith

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February 2007

A friend recently sent her brother a detailed letter from the bishops urging the faithful to oppose the taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. Her brother’s reply was much shorter: “I support it.” Two Catholics, trained at the same time, with radically different stances on one of the major moral issues of all time.

In the great debate over embryonic stem cell research, there is no debate over the central fact: a human embryo dies as a necessary part of the process. And if we are to get a moral handle on this issue, we need to come to grips with the death part. It’s not just about the deaths of human embryos. It’s about our death.

Take this test ⎯ and no cheating. A world-class scientist tells you that he will cure liver cancer today if you donate your liver. Oh the joy, for you will save thousands of people from horrendous suffering! But there’s a catch. You cannot survive without a liver, so your death, today, is a necessary part of the process. Gonna give it? Will you give it if your liver will speed a cure, though not provide one now? What if no cure is likely but your liver will aid in studying cancer? Is your answer “no” to each ⎯ like mine would be? So if we won’t sacrifice our own lives, why should we sacrifice the lives of others, particularly lives just starting? After all, we’ve lived long and seen and done plenty, and we should allow others to do the same.

The answer to the question lies in our desire for a long, pain-free life. It’s a perfectly natural desire ⎯ but horribly tempting. Take another test. You suffer from Parkinson’s disease and your doctor says that you could be cured today if he injects you with embryonic stem cells. Someone’s life will end so that you will get better. The temptation would be strong to take the cure, wouldn’t it? It would for me. For many people, that temptation is what subconsciously fuels the desire for embryonic stem cell research. For if Parkinson’s or any disease is eliminated before we contract it, we will be spared the personal temptation to take another’s life. We can say that we didn’t kill a life to save ourselves. But if we support the research that requires death, even just one death, to eliminate the disease, we cannot say so honestly.

The sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon set sail for the Bahamas in search of the legendary fountain of youth, whose partakers supposedly never grow old. He didn’t find it on his first voyage, though his discovery of Florida was none too shabby. On his second voyage, he was mortally wounded in a fight against natives. Ponce taught us a valuable lesson: those seeking to live forever will die trying.

That desire to live pain-free lives forever exposes what for many people is the silent struggle in the embryonic stem cell fight. The real debate over embryo research is not about science. It is about faith. It is about why we are here ⎯ and where we go from here. These are important questions. The answers have been part of Church teaching for centuries. We are on this earth to know, love, and serve God so that we may be eternally happy with Him in Heaven. Life forever on earth has never been part of the Plan. We are born for Heaven, not earth. And so we are called to ultimately let go of what we have here ⎯ life itself. Jesus tells us, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it” (Mk 3:35). We cannot save ourselves or others by sacrificing the most helpless humans.

This does not mean that we abandon a search for cures to human diseases that cause so much suffering and death. Part of our earthly work is to alleviate as best as possible the suffering of others. Research should continue, even with stem cells ⎯ from adults, umbilical cords, and now even from baby teeth! Great successes have been reported with these stem cells, and using them does not require anyone’s death.

We need to face facts. We cannot end suffering, whether our own suffering or that of our loved ones. And we will all die, whether of something known now or something not yet existing. AIDS was first reported in the 1980’s; it is now an uncontrolled worldwide epidemic. But the good news is that we can help each other carry our crosses. And the even better news is that death is not the end. It is a move to a far better place. Jesus conquered the world, and so He conquered death. We can, too. We only need to take the leap of faith that His Promise is true.

We should be united, not divided, about embryonic stem cell research. May we unite in the conviction that we will not allow the unborn to die so that we may live. Together let us walk out to the ledge, close our eyes, count to three, and leap. He will be there when we land. He has promised.

We will do well, very well, to believe it.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2007. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us on the web at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/

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© 2008 Paul V. Esposito