Education and advocacy are needed now in a cultural "window of opportunity" to alert the majority of the population repulsed by the eugenics of the past to the near and present dangers of the "New Eugenics" movement, said Catholic leaders at the Bioethics and Eugenics Conference July 26 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

More than 300 people packed The Center at Cathedral Plaza to hear nationally-renowned bioethicists and medical/legal professionals share information and discuss eugenics through the lens of Catholic moral teaching. The conference was jointly presented by the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Archbishop José Gomez.

John Haas, Ph.D., president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center founded in 1972, praised the church in his opening remarks for being "ahead of the curve" in the area of bioethics.

"Before Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court, before anybody had ever heard about HIV/AIDS, before a stem cell had been ever isolated, before there was a national debate over stem cell embryonic research, the Catholic Church was grappling with these issues at our center," said Haas.

In his talk on "The Threats and Challenges of Eugenics," he noted the misuse of language, such as the term "racial cleansing" used by early 20th century U.S. and German eugenicists to cover-up court-sanctioned sterilizations of those considered inferior/defective and the more recent term "interrupted pregnancy" for abortion.

"By the time of the end of the Second World War,” said Haas, “eugenics was thoroughly discredited — millions [of Jews] had been exterminated in its name — but the study of genetics continued," leading to medical discoveries of genetic disorders. By 1970, pre-natal genetic screening and selection (like amniocentesis to detect Down Syndrome) became available to determine whether a child had a genetic disorder. Ideally, those findings could help parents prepare for the birth of a child with special needs. All too often, it led to parents eliminating those with genetic disorders.

In succeeding years, pre-implantation genetic screening and selection was being used at fertility clinics, where embryos not chosen for implantation in the womb of the biological mother or a surrogate because of a genetic defect were destroyed or frozen for possible future implantation or research. Currently, hundreds of thousands of embryos exist in a frozen state in the U.S.

"We find in our day not only the destruction of lives that we consider not worth living — and these days the tendency is to do so before they can even be seen with the naked eye, that is in a petri dish or inside the hiddenness of the mother's womb — but we've gotten to the point where we've even begun to market human life and to submit them to our contemporary economic dispositions in this country, and this field is totally unregulated in the United States," said Haas.

He noted the plethora of media ads for in vitro fertilization clinics as well as ads soliciting female egg donors "couched in the most humane kind of language" that hides the exploitation of women and the use of financial transactions to obtain eggs for these purposes.

Human dignity

In his talk on "The Catholic Moral Tradition in Defense of Human Dignity," Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center who has testified before members of four state legislatures regarding stem cell research and cloning, began by referring to "Dignitas Personae," the 2008 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,

"In looking at the concept of human dignity, there's a very nice passage [from the document stating] 'The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has felt obliged to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence…'

"Human dignity is the key concept here that gets manipulated and violated as we move in the direction of eugenics, so what this passage is saying and reminding us: human dignity implies recognizing the inalienable rights of human beings…and it implies protection of and respect towards human beings," said Father Pacholczyk.

Quoting again from “Dignitas Personae,” he read: "The human person deserves to be loved in himself, independently of any other consideration" such as intelligence, beauty, health, youth or integrity. "This has direct implications for bioethics," said Father Pacholczyk, adding that the dignity of a person is the foundation of proper ethical reflection about biomedical research.

"When we discuss unconditional respect that is due towards the human being at every moment of his or her existence, I think it's important to realize that the difference between conditional and unconditional respect towards fellow human beings ends up as a key difference between good and evil bioethical choices.

“When we start imposing our own conditionality, saying 'you have to have this or that quality before I will permit you to continue to live,' as occurs in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis where we are assessing the status of individual human beings in their embryonic state, we have already crossed the line from unconditional acceptance to saying 'you've got to run the gauntlet that I am setting up for you, and, if you don't make the bar, well I am very sorry."

Father Pacholczyk noted the importance of "seeing through" four morally irrelevant distinctions people make in discussions about early human life reminiscent of the way eugenicists historically misused language to cover-up their activities.

—The first one is the claim that the embryo is “merely cellular life,” not human life. This is scientific error, said Father Pacholczyk, because "when we are talking about a human embryo, we are talking specifically about human life itself."

—The second is the argument that size matters: that a tiny embryo is not a person. Father Pacholczyk pointed to a picture of an embryo sitting on the point of a sewing pin taken with an electron microscope.

"The question you should ask yourself is not whether or not the embryo is small, it certainly is, but rather a different question: Isn't this exactly what a young human is supposed to look like? That affirmation doesn't depend on religion, a value system, or imposing anything on anyone, it just depends on reconnecting with our own hard biological origins, with that reality," said the priest, who added that the timing of personhood or "ensoulment," which is a mystery, is not essential to the moral question.

—The third is the claim that there's a difference when the embryo is in the womb rather than being in a test tube. Father Pacholczyk pointed out that children have been born from frozen embryos that were adopted. "Just because you change the location, you do not change the essence of what you are dealing with."

—The fourth claim, that frozen embryos to be discarded (destroyed) could do some good towards biomedical research seeking cures for diseases like Parkinson's, is morally unjustifiable, Father Pacholczyk said, because it results in the destruction of embryonic children.

 “It's amazing the lines that we have crossed here in the short space of 30 years since IVF has become commonplace,” said Father Pacholczyk.

'The Spin'

"The issue of eugenics is not just a moral issue, this is the greatest social issue to face mankind, and we have a window of opportunity right now like we've never had before, because most people are against eugenics," said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a bioethicist and clinical professor of neurology at USC who has debated eugenics and stem cell issues both nationally and internationally.

However, he acknowledged, educating people is difficult in a world where the media is enamored with science and an aging population seeks the promise of cures for fatal illnesses through emerging biotechnologies, including embryonic stem cell research backed by vested economic interests.

He warned that powerful interests — such as he encountered as president of No on 71, the California ballot initiative which passed in 2004 authorizing state-funded embryonic stem cell research — will sell the "New Eugenics" using "The Spin," to cast a positive light on morally repugnant procedures such as the destruction of abandoned frozen embryos for stem cell research.

“The motivation is unfortunately greed, trillions [in] the [fertility] business; the rationalization is pushed by political opportunists who would like to divide us into two camps: pro-life and pro-choice, when this is not a moral issue only, this is a societal issue," said Fortanasce.

He added that surprising organizations such as Greenpeace and the ACLU are "right on our shoulder with us — this is the reason why we have this window of opportunity," to confront the "medical elite" who want to be able to pursue human genetic engineering, aided by "New Age" bioethicists and supported by a "liberal media."

He noted how proponents of Prop. 71 never mentioned cloning, but used the term somatic cell nuclear transfer. "In fact they never mentioned [the word] embryo; it was pluripotent cells."

Fortanasce explained how the intentional misuse of language clouded understanding among voters, including 62 percent of Catholics who voted for Prop. 71, "which has killed hundreds of thousands of human embryos," and has not resulted in a single treatment or cure for any chronic disease ten years later.

"I just want you to know that $240 million of your tax dollars is going to pay off over the next 25 years that $3 billion that was invested in Prop. 71's embryonic stem cell research, said Fortanasce.

 "The indifference of people on Prop. 71 permitted it," said Fortanasce. "It was almost impossible to get people to listen, and you are here listening. You're the beginning."