Hope for the Disabled

The front-page article on adult stem-cell research in your Oct. 28-Nov. 3 issue was gratifying ("Breakthroughs Show Advantages of Adult Stem Cells"). This critically important moral challenge had faded into the background, becoming hidden behind more easily understood threats to human life.

As the executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, a voice of our bishops’ concerns about meaningful welcome and justice for the 14 to 15 million Catholics with various physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities, I am disappointed so many of my fellow Catholics do not recognize it is the researchers, rather than their research findings, that continue to fuel the clamor for unrestricted destruction of human embryos.

Unfortunately, too many otherwise faith-filled Catholics are confused, in large part because the secular press has tended to ignore the advances made with stem cells acquired by morally acceptable means. Register correspondent Celeste McGovern clarified that confusion by detailing positive outcomes derived from the use of stem cells from placenta, umbilical-cord blood and other tissue that does not jeopardize human life.

But the repeated insistence that somehow we can eliminate or “cure” all human vulnerabilities if only enough leeway is given to those researchers seeking to unlock the mysteries of human vulnerability, is bothersome.

The National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities maintains that our shared vulnerability calls forth compassion, generosity, persistence, courage, gentleness and empathy within a society moving toward an increasingly utilitarian definition of human life.

In the celebration of last December's Jubilee Day for Persons with Disabilities, Pope John Paul II asserted in his homily: “Disability … is a request for help, but even before that it is a challenge to individual and collective selfishness; it is an invitation to ever new forms of brotherhood.” He noted that those of us with various disabilities “call into question those conceptions of life that are solely concerned with satisfaction, appearances, speed and efficiency.”

The worst thing in life is not disability, pain or even death. The worst thing I can imagine is to create a society that sees itself as justified in treating people as objects to be used or discarded, as best fits the desires of the moment. I would not wish to live in such a world. And the moral choices we make today will surely shape our future and that of all future generations. We cannot let our frenzied attempts to deny our shared vulnerability cause us to lose our moral guidance.

The triumphs of rehabilitation — the tenacity required to learn new ways to continue to function within one's family and society, medical techniques which prolong life and avoid the pain experienced by past generations — should relieve ancient fears. I pray we can learn to recognize the strength of our shared vulnerability.

MARY JANE OWEN Washington, D.C.

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