ROME, March 8, 2013, ( – “Utilitarianism isn’t useful.” With that paradox Richard Doerflinger, the Associate Director of the Pro-Life Secretariat at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), summed up the thesis of his address to the annual General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) at the Vatican last month.

In his provocative talk, Doerflinger charged that while secularists regularly chastise believers for waging a “war on science,” the truth is the exact opposite: that through a stubborn and dogmatic adherence to their creed of amoral utilitarianism, secularists have stunted real progress in many key areas, particularly where science and the life issues intersect.


“[S]ome who are hostile to religion have made exaggerated claims about the promise of research that ignores responsible moral norms, to score points against the believers they imagine to be their enemies,” said Doerflinger.

“They have narrowed their focus to these avenues, despite the existence of alternative avenues offering comparable or better results. At times they have even falsified or misrepresented the findings of science, treating them as ammunition in a social and political debate instead of as contributions to a common search for scientific truth,” he added. “In the process, they have impoverished science as a search for truth.” 

The failure of embryonic stem cell research

Nowhere is this more manifest, he said, than in the field of stem cell research.

According to Doerflinger, embryonic stem cell research has been subject to wildly exaggerated claims, often by scientists and researchers with less than pure motives.

When embryonic stem cell research first entered the public consciousness,  “some politicians who support abortion saw an opportunity to show that adherence to a pro-life position will deprive many born people of much-needed miracle cures,” he said.

The result was that enormous amounts of resources were poured into making stem cells derived from human embryos, which “were hailed, on the basis of very little evidence, as the ‘gold standard’ for stem cell research.”  

Meanwhile, “All other kinds of stem cell, from adult sources for example, were…judged deficient to the extent they were found to be different – even when the difference made the adult cells potentially more useful and more safe for ultimate use in therapy.”

According to Doerflinger, “The public hype in favor of embryonic stem cells ultimately took on a life of its own, going far beyond any possible standard for scientific accuracy.” 

Even the fact that clinical trials of treatments using embryonic stem cells consistently resulted in the growth of dangerous tumors did little to halt the feverish hyping of the unethical research. What did, however, have an impact was when Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka unveiled the successful results of his effort to create embryo-like cells without resorting to the destruction of actual human embryos – research that earned him the Nobel Prize.

This, says Doerflinger, led to a “remarkable thing.” “Even the scientists and ethicists who had spent years praising and even developing ESC research felt free, for the first time, to admit in public that they had ethical qualms about what they had been doing – but they thought this was the only road to progress, so they suppressed those qualms to achieve what they had seen as a higher good.”

“Despite this happy ending,” concluded Doerflinger, “it is sobering to think that genuine medical progress may have been delayed for years by many scientists’ fixation on ESCs, their refusal to consider an alternate route, and the diversion of scarce research dollars away from avenues now recognized as holding greater promise.”

Not just embryo research

Unfortunately, said Doerflinger, stem cell research is merely one of many fields in which the pursuit of the “utilitarian” has similarly resulted in scientific dead ends, at or at best superficial “treatments” the come at the expense of real therapeutic progress. 

For instance, he said, while scientists have embraced extremely expensive and unethical in vitro fertilization as the panacea for solving infertility, actual research into the root causes of infertility has stagnated.

This has left Catholic researchers such as Dr. Thomas Hilgers, the creator of NaProTechnology, to do the heavy lifting toward researching and developing ethical and effective treatments for infertility that actually solve the underlying causes of the problem and do not involve expensive interventions.

To take another example, while abortion has been adopted as the de facto “treatment” for any sort of high risk pregnancy, “in cases where the woman rejects abortion, [doctors] no longer know what to do.” This has left a dwindling handful of experts with the skills set necessary to guide women successfully through high risk pregnancies, without deliberately taking the life of their babies.

A similar problem has cropped up wherever euthanasia has been adopted, he said.

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“In the Netherlands, Dr.Richard Fenigsen and others report that the spread of euthanasia as a solution to problems at the end of life has produced a generation of doctors who do not know how to diagnose the real problems accurately, let alone understand their appropriate treatments,” said Doerflinger.

“Why would anyone devote himself to the difficult task of easing a patient’s physical pain, anxiety, depression and other problems if there is one infallible solution to every problem – that is, to eliminate the patient?

“Inevitably, this assumption that killing the patient is the only solution becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The physician neglects more and more alternative approaches, and therefore finds more and more cases for which he cannot recall any solution except killing.”

Utilitarian thinking: bad for science

According to Doerflinger, “People of faith need to be involved in these fields if inquiry, to show a better way.”

“In so many areas we can show that there really are other ways, even more effective ways, to solve a problem – that the cost of taking the morally sound path, in terms of human progress, is not what many secular scientists think it is.”

Utilitarianism, said Doerflinger, is “bad for science.”

The basic premise of utilitarianism is that science should seek the “greatest good for the greatest number of people,” a principle that “can justify harming the few, the weak or the seemingly unimportant here and now.”

But, Doerflinger asked:

in this ethic, what happens if one’s efforts are not producing their desired results – the results that was to provide ethical justification for the harm one has already done?  In that case, one may have not only a failed experiment but a moral crisis – the harm is not being outweighed by benefits, and one cannot undo that harm.  The temptation, then, is to commit oneself all the more aggressively to that path, pressing for more research, more money, more political support, so the benefits will materialize, and retroactively provide moral justification for what one has done.

This, in turn, “leads to distortions of scientific method, a tunnel vision that excludes other paths, almost a group hysteria focused on just one way of doing things – generally the most ethically unacceptable way of doing things.  It leads to very bad science.” 

To thrive, concluded Doerflinger, science “needs people who believe in Truth with a capital T.”

“We must show that faith in God and His providence, faith in the search for truth as God has created it for us to find, can save scientists from the degrading slavery of being children of the scientific fads and fashions of our age.”


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