Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person
Archived content 2006 - 2010
For a number of years this was the official website of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person. The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person was founded in 1998 to renew, deepen, and promote the Western tradition of moral reflection. The institute pursues its objectives in cultural, political, and academic settings. Through seminars, lecture series, and research fellowships, the Westchester Institute seeks to reinvigorate contemporary moral discourse at all levels.
The new owners of the domain felt that the message of this site is as relevant today as it was a decade ago, perhaps even more so today considering the state of affairs.
Content is from the site's 2006 - 2010 archived pages.
The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person is first and foremost a scholarly community of ethical thought and reflection. Dedicated to fundamental research on the Western moral tradition, we pursue our objectives in cultural, political, and academic settings. Operating as a New York not-for-profit corporation, and sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, our approach is thoroughly rooted in the Catholic moral tradition.
Through scholarly gatherings, interdisciplinary research, publication, seminars, and lectures, we seek to reinvigorate contemporary moral discourse at all levels, while at the same time working to resolve some of the most difficult moral questions facing mankind today.
The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person is a research institute conducting interdisciplinary, natural law analysis of complex, contemporary moral issues yet unresolved among Judeo-Christian scholars.
Anchored in the classic perennial and Catholic view of the human person, our moral inquires are first and foremost of a scholarly nature. However, we pursue answers to these disputed questions with an eye toward enriching the quality of contemporary moral discourse, and fostering sound prudential judgment in cultural and political matters.
We are currently dedicated to the following issues:
- The genesis of human life & the moral status of the human embryo
- The search for scientifically and morally feasible alternatives to embryo-based biomedical research
- The use of emergency contraception in rape protocols
- The determination of human death, and end-of-life issues
- The relationship between religion, science, and reason as sources of moral insight for modern society.
The Westchester Institute and its scholars have become a distinguished resource and point of reference for think-tanks, centers for applied research, and institutes of public policy analysis. Together, we seek to make a significant contribution to the common good and to contemporary culture.
From the Director
Director of Programs
Director of Programs
"We are most fortunate to have Michelle on board with us," said Fr. Thomas Berg, Executive Director of the Institute. "Michelle brings with her not only a rich background of experience, but a real passion for the mission of the Institute. She will really enable us to move to a higher level of effectiveness and engagement with the culture."
Prior to joining the Westchester Institute, Ms. Gress worked for the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, where she was Counsel for the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources. She handled the Subcommittee's powerful oversight jurisdiction of the federal government's health agencies, including Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration. Before working on the Hill, Ms. Gress was Law Clerk for the President's Council on Bioethics.
Ms. Gress also has several years' experience as a public relations consultant, managing numerous instrumental Congressional briefings, news conferences and other media/communications programs on behalf of noteworthy public policy clients such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Knights of Columbus, and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. She has managed comprehensive communications programs for domestic political action committees and international NGOs.
Ms. Gress earned her Juris Doctor degree from George Mason University. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and daughter.
The Westchester Institute and its scholars have become a distinguished resource and point of reference for think-tanks, centers for applied research, and institutes of public policy analysis. We are currently dedicated to the following issues: The genesis of human life & the moral status of the human embryo; the search for scientifically and morally feasible alternatives to embryo-based biomedical research; the use of emergency contraception in rape protocols; the determination of human death, and end-of-life issues; the relationship between religion, science, and reason as sources of moral insight for modern society.
These are some of the research areas in which we are currently engaged:
Emergency Contraception: Emergency contraception has been a controversial topic for many years, stemming from the potential mode of action of preventing an embryo from properly implanting in the womb, thereby causing an early abortion. Scientific studies examining emergency contraception cannot eliminate early abortion as one potential mode of action, though prevention of ovulation is the most common effect of emergency contraception. The Westchester Institute is currently investigating this area, and will release a White Paper on the topic in early 2009.
Alternatives to embryo-based biomedical research: The Westchester Institute is actively engaged in the moral evaluation of some of the most promising alternatives to embryo destructive research.
The Westchester Institute is currently working on a project that aims to use social research to shed light on the debilitating effects of internet p*rn. We believe that conducting an in-depth and well-designed study will provide valuable social research in an understudied area that has had profound effects on the family and society.
A collection of original commentary from selected scholars and public policy experts, answering the question of whether the pro-life movement has “failed.”
In light of the large percentage of self-identified “pro-life” citizens who voted for Barak Obama – an ardent advocate of legal abortion – there is a widespread conversation about the pro-life movement’s strategy, and many are publicly asking: Has the broader pro-life movement “failed”? Does “fail” mean we didn’t overturn Roe v. Wade, or does it mean more than that? Is it time for a new strategy in some sense? Is it a plausible argument that an Administration dedicated to unrestricted legal access to abortion might nonetheless promote a reduction in abortions through government social programs that encourage pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support and adoption?
The Westchester Institute presents the following original commentaries from a select group of respected pro-life scholars and public policy experts who address such questions.
Has the Pro-Life Movement Failed? Ask an Abortion Doctor
By Cathy Ruse and Austin Ruse
Imagine yourself a typical abortion doctor, working anywhere in the country. You’re a late middle-aged man who never gets to know your patients and doesn’t care to. In the beginning you saw yourself as a hero in the fight for women’s rights, but now years later as you travel a circuit of clinics, your unknown patients lying prone on table after table, the luster of your work has faded.
The Pro-Life Movement has Both Failed and Succeeded
By Helen Alvare
Catholics who voted for Obama (a disproportionately non-Church-going, self-professed- Catholic group) are very likely not thinking (like most Americans) about abortion at all. It would be incorrect, therefore, to claim that the election of this man is an accurate evaluation of the status of the pro-life movement. An accurate picture of the pro-life movement over the last 45 years, would rather have to acknowledge that the movement has both succeeded and failed.
Time to Redouble Our Efforts
By Maria McFadden Maffucci
I do not believe the pro-life movement has failed overall, in the sense that what we have been doing is wrong, or that what we have been aiming for is hopeless. I believe that pro-life individuals have failed to make the protection of the unborn an actual priority. The current election was not “about” abortion; many who voted for Obama voted for him in spite of, not because of, his position on abortion.
A Temporary Defeat
By Anne Conlon
William Buckley liked to remind conservatives (and liberals) that there were no permanent victories, no permanent defeats. Four years ago, after George Bush’s reelection, the press saw mighty hordes of evangelicals everywhere on the political horizon; the urgent question then was would the Democrats—and even the nation’s two-party system—survive? On January 22 (Roe v. Wade day), 2005, Hillary Clinton startled many supporters when, in an address to New York’s Family Planning Advocates, she declared that abortion was “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” one that while “guaranteed under our constitution,” should “not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.”
The following commentary, though not exclusive to the Westchester Institute, is highly relevant and especially poignant: written by our late friend Richard John Neuhaus, it was published in the January issue of First Things.
The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s
By Richard John Neuhaus
Copyright (c) 2009 First Things (January 2009)
Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States. Since the 1960s, citizen participation and the remoralizing of politics have been central goals of the left. Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the irony of American history” and, were he around to update his book of that title, I expect he might recognize this as one of the major ironies within the irony.
Researchers Create Artificial Human Ovar
The potential benefits and the latent moral hazards
October 16, 2010
A recent study published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics described the scientific manufacture of an artificial human ovary which in turn produced a viable human egg. Begun from real human ovarian tissue and grown on a prefab laboratory matrix, the artificial ovary was hailed as a major breakthrough. As the authors observed, the experiment is proof of principle that an artificial ovary "can be created with self-assembled human theca and granulosa cell micro tissues," and can produce viable human eggs for reproductive and other purposes. The researchers went on to affirm that "theoretically, in vitro maturation of primordial [eggs] promises to yield the greatest number of fertilizable [eggs] for future reproduction."
artificialIt should be noted that history has already seen one gravely disordered use of related biotechnology on the occasion of an American medical first: a pregnancy achieved through a sibling to siblingartificial ovarian transplant -- in this case, between identical twin sisters. The moral disorder in this case should be apparent: ovaries, because of their intrinsic link to human life and specific human identity (both of the woman and her eventual offspring) are not on a par with other non-vital body parts which could be reasonably donated to a person in need. Notwithstanding the genetic proximity of identical twins, the twin sister's ovary is nonetheless bound up in her own identity; her eggs are her eggs, with their unique genetic signature. Consequently, procreation here occurs with the egg of another woman, thus involving a third party in the procreation process and rendering grave harm to the marital unity of the infertile sister and her husband.
By the same token, we have also witnessed anamazing, wonderful and morally licit use of related technology. In 2005, Stinne Holm Bergholdt had six strips of her own ovarian tissue returned to and transplanted onto her own ovaries. She had the tissue frozen before starting chemotherapy treatments which can cause sometimes irreversible damage on human ovaries, rendering a woman infertile. Since then, Stinne has had two children.
As with most biotech developments, the achievement of artificial human ovaries presents possible benefits, but also an alarming potential for scientific depravity. On the positive side, the artificial ovary could assist the study of the early genesis of human eggs and offer a new research tool for the study of anomalies in the human reproductive process. But beyond this potentially good application, the prospect of artificial ovaries constitutes a watershed opportunity for researchers to go mainstream with the dark project of human cloning.
Up until now, the lack of human eggs -- or oocytes -- has hampered attempts at successful human cloning. At the present state of the art, approximately sixty to a hundred oocytes would be required to produce a single cloned human embryo. Artificial ovaries could supply in spades the heretofore dearth of eggs available for research. IVF clinics commonly discard many of the eggs retrieved for fertility treatments because they are too immature. The new technology would allow for such eggs to be matured in vitro and consequently hugely increase the supply of available eggs.
As reported three years ago, some of the remaining hurdles to successful human cloning have already been surmounted. Readers will recall the announcement, published in the journal Nature in November, 2007, that Oregon-based scientist Shoukhrat Mitalipov successfully cloned monkey embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from them.
Mitalipov's success with monkey embryo cloning provides the theoretical foundation for scientists to pursue so-called "therapeutic" cloning in humans. Embryonic stem cells derived from a cloned human embryo, because they would be genetically identical to a patient, could be used in potential treatments without prompting an immune rejection response -- overcoming one of the greatest hurdles for researching and developing therapeutic applications for human embryonic stem cells.
In a recent poll published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 76% of Americans express their opposition to human cloning for research purposes. While reassuring, such a statistic hardly constitutes a solid assurance that Americans are truly poised to effectively prohibit dark projects, such as human cloning, that would render the use of mass quantities of human embryos for biomedical research common-place. Such is the prospect we face. It will take the sustained efforts of pro-life advocates at the grass roots level to translate adverse attitudes toward embryo-destructive research into an effective and national legislative prohibition of such research.
Westchester Institute White Papers
White Paper: Emergency Contraceptives & Catholic Healthcare
The question of the licitness of providing “emergency contraceptives” to victims of sexual assault who present in the emergency rooms at Catholic hospitals is a critical matter for evaluating and developing appropriate protocols for sexual assault victims. An examination of the available scientific studies demonstrates that the most common emergency contraceptive—Plan B, generally administered to prevent ovulation—at times may fail to prevent conception from taking place and instead may prompt an early abortion. This necessitates answering the question of when, and under what circumstances, it is morally licit to provide contraceptive medications to sexual assault victims while avoiding the potential outcome of prompting an early abortion.
White Paper: When Does Human Life Begin?
Resolving the question of when human life begins is critical for advancing a reasoned public policy debate over abortion and human embryo research. This article considers the current scientific evidence in human embryology and addresses two central questions concerning the beginning of life: 1) in the course of sperm-egg interaction, when is a new cell formed that is distinct from either sperm or egg? and 2) is this new cell a new human organism—i.e., a new human being? Based on universally accepted scientific criteria, a new cell, the human zygote, comes into existence at the moment of sperm-egg fusion, an event that occurs in less than a second. Upon formation, the zygote immediately initiates a complex sequence of events that establish the molecular conditions required for continued embryonic development. The behavior of the zygote is radically unlike that of either sperm or egg separately and is characteristic of a human organism. Thus, the scientific evidence supports the conclusion that a zygote is a human organism and that the life of a new human being commences at a scientifically well defined “moment of conception.” This conclusion is objective, consistent with the factual evidence, and independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos.
White Paper: Emergency Contraceptives & Catholic Healthcare
The question of the licitness of providing “emergency contraceptives” to victims of sexual assault who present in the emergency rooms at Catholic hospitals is a critical matter for evaluating and developing appropriate protocols for sexual assault victims.
An examination of the available scientific studies demonstrates that the most common emergency contraceptive—Plan B, generally administered to prevent ovulation—at
times may fail to prevent conception from taking place and instead may prompt an early abortion. This necessitates answering the question of when, and under what
circumstances, it is morally licit to provide contraceptive medications to sexual assault victims while avoiding the potential outcome of prompting an early abortion.
Knowing Right From Wrong
Benedict and a Leading Atheist Share Common Ground on Moral Theory
November 16, 2010 9:00 am
American culture is happily awash of late with appeals to human reason.
Case in point is a new book by ultra anti-religionist Sam Harris. Although the fundamental thesis of The Moral Landscape -- that “science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors…are morally good” -- is quite a stretch even by secular standards, Harris nonetheless does a couple of remarkable things for a leading public atheist.
First he insists that a knowledge of right and wrong should be a matter of objective, straightforward human knowledge, thus dismissing three centuries of philosophers who, in one form or another, have insisted that ‘the good’ does not name some objective quality at all, but only serves to euphemistically veil our own personal preferences: ‘X is morally good’ means nothing but ‘I like X and I want you to like X too’.
More fascinating still is his insistence that both sides of the culture wars -- the Evangelical Christian right just as surely as the hard core champions of reductionist evolutionary psychology -- have erred in their notions of how we determine right from wrong, and this because they have failed to understand the full possibilities of human reason.“[A] shared belief in the limitations of reason,” affirms Harris, “lies at the bottom of [our] cultural divides.” Both sides of the ‘culture wars’, he insists, “believe that reason is powerless to answer the most important questions in human life.”
One cannot read this without the uncanny sense that Harris was somehow channeling another renowned critic of western thought, and one of Harris’s own arch nemeses -- Benedict XVI. Readers of this column will already be familiar with similar assessments of western thought penned by Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) in his seminal work Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures:
It is true that the positivist philosophies contain important elements of truth; but these are based on a self-limitation of reason that is typical of one determined cultural situation, that of the modern West, and, as such, certainly cannot be considered the last word of reason… This is why they are not the philosophy which one day could enjoy validity throughout the whole world.
With Harris, Benedict roundly rejects the misshapen conceptions about human reason on both sides of the culture wars. Our highly technological and procedural western culture has found great use for reason in an era dominated by largely pragmatic concerns; but it has found little use for reason on the big questions like the existence of God, and what ultimately constitutes right and wrong moral choices. And this is as true of the staunchest secularists as of many of the most Bible-based Christian evangelicals: reason is of little help on these matters.
Now, when Harris speaks of ‘human reason’, he means the drawing of conclusions from empirically based knowledge -- that and nothing more. When Benedict, and more broadly the natural law tradition, speaks of ‘human reason’, we mean, in addition to this, our ability to grasp innate truths about ourselves which are manifest to us independently of empirical evidence. For example, I do not need to be taught, much less convinced by recent studies, that the trafficking of children to fuel the international porn industry constitutes a grave moral evil. While Harris would undoubtedly concede trafficking of children is manifestly evil, he would hold, however, that such evidence is based on centuries of accrued human experience, not on the almost instantaneous insights of human reason.
True to form, Harris’ disparagement of religion in The Moral Landscape is as boundless as his exaltation of the hard sciences. Yet, Harris, Benedict and the tradition actually agree that (a) morality is ultimately rooted in an objective understanding of what fulfills us as human beings; and that (b) an understanding of the behaviors that are corrosive to that fulfillment can be known objectively and transculturally. That’s not bad for two otherwise highly disparate thinkers. It is a crying shame in fact that Harris is apparently so clueless about the Catholic natural law tradition. If he would just for a moment set aside his over-the-top diatribes against formal religion, and read his Benedict more carefully, he might just find good reason to think perhaps we believers are not so wacked after all.
Illegal Immigration and Catholic Social Teaching
Some principles that should inform the debate
May 18, 2010
Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed the Arizona Immigration Bill (SB 1070) on April 23. The Catholic bishops of Arizona and an interfaith network of Arizona religious leaders responded with an emotionally charged statement accusing the governor of sacrificing “political courage for political expediency” and suggesting the law is an affront to human dignity and runs afoul of the basic moral precept directing us to welcome the stranger.
I must admit I have been taken aback at how many Catholic voices have been making fine arguments about a proper, genuinely Catholic attitude toward immigrants (presumably those who enter the country legally), while entirely missing (and arguing right past) the issue at hand, namely, illegal immigration.
And I confess to have problems with all the invective coming from Catholic sources and directed at the Arizona law, particularly when it rests firmly on the principle of rule of law which is in turn itself derived from the natural moral law.
That this invective has been disproportionate (to not say misguided) becomes evident when we stop and consider what the Arizona law actually says: when law enforcement officers have a reasonable suspicion that a person is an alien unlawfully present in the U.S., they may demand to see immigration papers on the spot, and may detain a suspected illegal alien who fails to present appropriate documentation. National Review’s Rich Lowry has explained how such “reasonable suspicion” might work in practice -- his point being that it is quite readily workable and has legal precedence and praxis. So in looking at the text of the law on its merits, we must ask: is there anything unreasonable about it, much less draconian, fascist or grossly abrasive to human dignity? Arguably, according to a recent poll, 61% of Americans don’t think so.
How then does Catholic social teaching confront the question of immigration, broadly speaking, and illegal immigration more specifically?
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church structures a discussion of “immigration” by placing it in the section under the “right to work,” a fundamental human right affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in its Apostolic Constitution Gaudium et Spes. It notes that “in most cases…immigrants fill a labor need which would otherwise remain unfilled in sectors and territories where the local workforce is insufficient or unwilling to engage in the work in question.” It then calls for host countries to be vigilant to protect against the exploitation of laborers, to treat them with “equity and balance,” to strive to integrate them into society, to defend the right of immigrants to be reunited with their families, and to promote work opportunities for them.
To my knowledge, however, the Compendium does not suggest that the principle of rule of law should be subordinated somehow to the exigencies of the above mentioned rights. SB 1070 does no injustice to an illegal immigrant forced to forfeit his presence in the U.S. even when that means a temporary separation from family members already here. Such an eventuality is -- for any illegal alien -- a foreseeable potential consequence of breaking the law; responsibility for the attendant hardships brought about by such a breakup rests squarely on the shoulders of the illegal alien, not on the community where he resides and into which he has patently failed to integrate through the observance of the law.
To be sure, ideal immigration laws will uphold the principle of rule of law while taking into account the impracticality and imprudence of simply deporting thousands of illegal aliens who have already integrated themselves into the U.S. work force. On this score, SB 1070 is perhaps an imperfect law, but its measured application under the rubric of “reasonable suspicion” does not, in principle, harm the common good or constitute an affront to justice or personal dignity.
That said, it is by now obvious that SB 1070 is nothing less than an act of legislative exasperation in the face of federal policies which have failed miserably to protect state borders and impede the flow of drug traffic through the State. We might hope that SB 1070 can serve in the long run to catalyze the push for effective and just national immigration policies -- policies that will deal effectively with our porous national borders; get at the roots of drug and human trafficking;
and lower barriers to immigration to those persons who honestly seek to work in the U.S. and integrate into American society abiding by the rule of law.
A Legal Bombshell Hits Stem Cell Science
NIH Funding of Embryo-destructive research blocked
Septenber 09, 2010
On August 23, Chief federal Judge Royce C. Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Obama administration's guidelines for funding embryonic stem-cell research (which went into effect on July 7, 2009) violate federal law. He then placed a temporary injunction on any further funding. On Tuesday August 31, the administration filed a motion to stay that decision while a case challenging the funding policy makes its way through the courts.
Lamberth took up the case after a court of appeals determined that plaintiffs James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, both adult stem-cell researchers, had standing to challenge the guidelines because these arguably discriminate against scientists seeking stem cell funding for projects that do not involve human embryonic stem cells. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Deisher explained that, "Any adult stem cell scientist is disadvantaged, and that's because there is a deliberate focus to fund embryonic stem cell research and a focus away from adult stem cell research." And as Samuel Casey, counsel for the plaintiffs observed in a letter to the editors of the journal Nature, in so ruling:
The court faithfully applied a long line of cases, stretching back to the early 1970s. These consistently held that participants in regulated markets suffer injury when illegal changes in the regulatory scheme alter the competitive landscape -- in this case, the increased competition for funding to support research on adult (as opposed to embryonic) stem cells.
At the heart of the matter in Lamberth’s ruling is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (DWA) which has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill every year since 1996. As written, it prohibits federal funding for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under [current federal law].”
For 14 years, DWA has effectively prohibited the use of federal funds to support any research that would directly endanger or destroy human embryos. Beginning in 1999 under the Clinton administration, however, DWA has been interpreted as restricting federal funding only for the research in which human embryos are actually created and destroyed.
Lamberth noted that the defendants in the case were insisting that DWA presupposes this same putative conceptual distinction between: (a) research directly on embryos, and (b) research on hESCs as if the two were wholly distinct research endeavors. Resting their defense, as did the decades-old legal loophole on a much narrower interpretation of the phrase “research in which,” they argued that DWA prohibits funding of the former, but allows funding of the latter.
Lamberth for his part -- in a ruling that is breathtaking in its clarity, absent of any hint of judicial activism -- determined that, on an objective reading of the plain language of DWA, such a distinction is unsustainable:
[T]he language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed. This prohibition encompasses all “research in which” an embryo is destroyed, not just the “piece of research” in which the embryo is destroyed. Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo, like the derivation of ESCs, or to research on the embryo itself, Congress could have written the statute that way. Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written.
If one step or “piece of research” of an ESC research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
It comes as no surprise that Reps. Dickey and Wicker, who crafted and sponsored the amendment in the first place, have insisted repeatedly over the years that their amendment was always meant to be read in just this fashion. Until now that intent had been ignored by the NIH. Those days, it seems, are over, at least until Congress takes steps to enact new legislative remedies to open the funding again -- a step they should consider with extreme caution since a majority of Americans ( 57% according to a new poll) oppose federal funding for hESC research. For over a decade, DWA faithfully reflected a nation’s conscience on this issue, a conviction now shared by most. Let’s see if Congress gets it.