WASHINGTON — Has 2007 been a watershed year in terms of defending every human life from its earliest beginning as a newly formed human embryo?
Yes, according to Princeton law professor Robert George, a member of the President’s Council for Bioethics.
“It is the year of the embryo,” said George, a Catholic who is director of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
George cited two landmarks in 2007 that have moved the goalposts in the battle to protect life from conception. The first was President Bush’s veto last May of Congressional legislation aimed at overturning his 2001 ban on embryo-destroying stem-cell research.
Even more key, George said, was the announcement in mid-November that researchers in Japan and Wisconsin have succeeded in reprogramming adult skin cells into becoming “pluripotent” stem cells with the same capacity as embryonic stem cells to form all tissues in the human body.
Said George, “I can’t tell you how hugely important that is.”
The discovery holds the promise of ending the debate over embryonic stem-cell research, since the new “direct reprogramming” procedure — which involves no destruction of human life — is far simpler technically than trying to clone and kill human embryos to harvest their stem cells for research.
The direct reprogramming breakthrough was partly a consequence of the ethical discomfort that has afflicted prominent researchers working with embryonic stem cells.
James Thomson, head of the University of Wisconsin-Madison research team that succeeded in reprogramming skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, told The New York Times Nov. 22 that he had always had ethical qualms about his involvement in life-destroying embryonic stem-cell research.
“If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” said Thomson, who pioneered research using stem cells derived from embryos in the late 1990s.
Even more striking were comments in the Times’ Dec. 11 profile of Shinya Yamanaka, head of the Japanese team of direct reprogramming researchers.
The article began with an account of Yamanaka’s visit to a fertility clinic several years ago, which prompted him to seek an alternative to the embryonic stem-cell research he was doing then.
During the visit, he looked through a microscope at an embryo stored at the clinic.
“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” Yamanaka said. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
Efforts to pass human life amendments, recognizing legal personhood from the moment of fertilization in state constitutions, also progressed in 2007.
Robert Muise, an attorney with the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, says that if one state adopts such an amendment, that could trigger a Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
That’s because writing for the majority in Roe, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun indicated the decision would have to be reversed if legal personhood is established to include unborn human beings.
Muise would like to test that hypothesis in court. He believes the five Catholics who currently comprise a majority on the nine-member Supreme Court — John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy — would vote to uphold a state amendment defining personhood as beginning at fertilization.
Passage of human life amendments would also have clear ramifications for the embryonic stem-cell debate and other life issues, Muise noted.
And they would give legal expression to the fundamental principle proclaimed in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which states, “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception” (no. 60).
“It would create a culture of life, so that the law is defaulting to preserving life and taking a pro-life perspective,” said Muise.
Human life amendments are currently under discussion in several states, with Georgia the jurisdiction where a proposal has advanced the furthest.
A resolution amending Georgia’s constitution “to provide that the paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization” is now before the judiciary committee of the state House of Representatives.
Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, said pro-life forces can muster a solid majority in support of the resolution in the state Senate. The situation is much tighter in the House, where several Democrats would have to vote in favor for it to win the required two-thirds majority.
But Becker said Georgia could be uniquely positioned to pass a legal personhood amendment, as polls say that a solid majority of state residents would support measures to overturn Roe v. Wade.
And he thinks promoting the personhood of all human life is a winning strategy, regardless of what happens in the state legislature.
“We’re shifting public opinion dramatically,” Becker said.
Colorado is another state where a Human Life Amendment is gathering steam. Kristi Burton, a 20-year-old law student, received permission in July to launch a citizen’s initiative to place a question on the ballot in 2008 asking whether Colorado’s Constitution should be amended to define “the term ‘person’ to include any human being from the moment of fertilization.”
Burton said NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and three other pro-abortion lobby groups filed suit to prevent the initiative from proceeding, but the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously dismissed their objections in November.
The next hurdle is obtaining the 76,000 signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot.
Along with Colorado pro-life groups, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs is supporting the initiative, and parishes in his diocese are distributing sign-up petitions, Burton said.
He added the human life amendment would obviously have ramifications for abortion and other life issues. But she said that the amendment itself focuses solely on establishing the legal principle that a person exists from the moment life starts.
“Any other point is a very arbitrary point that people just kind of make up,” said Burton, who noted that abortion lobbyists vehemently object to this pro-life definition of personhood but refuse to say when they believe human life begins.
Toni Panetta, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, referred questions regarding her organization’s position on the human life amendment to NARAL’s national office.
NARAL Pro-Choice America’s communications director, Ted Miller, did not reply to questions submitted by the Register via e-mail.
Developments in the 35 years since Roe v. Wade have “reinforced massively” the pro-life position that life begins at conception, according to Princeton’s George.
Contemporary scientific knowledge establishes unequivocally that new human life begins specifically at the moment of conception, George said. And the widespread availability of ultrasound pictures of babies in the womb is driving home the reality of the personhood of the unborn in a tangible way to millions of American families each year.
George, whose new book Embryo: the Case for Human Life will be published this month, said abortion supporters cannot make a coherent counter-argument against these scientific facts.
“It’s an unenviable position they are in today,” he said.
Looking ahead to 2008, George singled out the race for the White House as the most significant issue from a pro-life perspective.
He pointed out that all of the leading Republican presidential candidates except Rudy Giuliani are strongly pro-life, in contrast to the Democratic frontrunners who all support legal abortion.
Said George, “An awful lot depends on the presidential campaign.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.