The May issue of F IRST T HINGS will include a careful look at the prospect of obtaining stem cells for research in ways that do not involve creating and killing human embryos. It is an admittedly complicated question, and some ethicists—mainly but not exclusively Catholic—have deep misgivings, claiming that the proposed procedures, however well intended, may end up exploiting human embryos after all.
Robert George of Princeton and Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center are solidly on the side of moving ahead, first with animal experiments, to see whether the claimed benefits of embryonic stem cell research can be obtained without destroying embryos. The following from their column at National Review Online is not precisely on that subject, but helps in understanding the ways in which some of the related scientific questions are disordering current discussions.
The South Korea scandal has revealed, yet again, the weak ethical arguments marshaled in defense of "therapeutic cloning," the latest example coming from Dr. Michael Gazzaniga in the New York Times . Gazzaniga calls the early cloned embryo just a "hunk of cells," and says that human dignity resides in a "lifetime of experiences and discovery." Of course, infants do not have "a lifetime of experiences and discovery" under their belt. Surely Dr. Gazzaniga does not want to harvest their organs. And stem cell scientists and their advocates may tell us that the embryo is just a "hunk of cells," but they seem to want that hunk of cells quite desperately.
It is dishonest to separate the special biological powers that an embryo possesses from the special organism that an embryo is. To the untutored human eye, embryos may seem like mere clumps of cells with no special value. But we also know that a human embryo is an individual human life in its earliest stage, and many of us believe that human life at all stages and in all conditions deserves basic respect.
Finally, the South Korea scandal only strengthens the case for developing scientific alternatives to research cloning¯and more specifically, methods of obtaining the genetically tailored, pluripotent, rejection-proof stem cells scientists want without producing or destroying human embryos. In just the past year, both Science and Nature have published papers demonstrating that such techniques¯such as fusing donor cells with an existing embryonic stem cell line to create a new, genetically identical one¯may be possible. Such research, using the stem-cell lines approved by President Bush, would be eligible now for federal funding. And with the revelations of fraud in South Korea, such alternative methods are probably further along scientifically than "therapeutic cloning."
If partisanship can be put aside, it may be possible to advance research in a way that all citizens can embrace, and to replace the corruption of cloning with responsible science. That is an outcome that should appeal to everybody. And it would be a silver lining in a scandal that has tainted a broad swath of science¯and not only in Korea.
“If partisanship can be put aside.” That’s a very big If indeed. The grim fact is that many who are so insistent upon embryo experimentation have greater ambitions. The use of embryos opens the door to what is accurately described as fetal farming, a practice already legally permitted in, for instance, New Jersey. Little wonder that the engineers of the brave new world are so fixated on targeting that “hunk of cells.”
F IRST T HINGS will get around to Kevin Phillips’ latest tract, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century . Meanwhile, one is amused by some of the earlier reviews. As Joseph Bottum mentioned in this space a couple of days ago, the book gets the big front page treatment in the New York Times Book Review , where it is reviewed by the Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley.
The subtitle of the book is the argument. I leave aside for the moment oil and national debt, and look at what is said about the title subject, American theocracy. Brinkley says that Phillips “presents a remarkably comprehensive and chilling picture of the goals and achievements of the religious right.” According to Phillips the fantasies of the late R.J. Rushdoony and his “Christian Reconstructionists” are well on the way to fulfillment. The alliance between evangelicals and “Eastern rite Catholics” is another threatening development that many of us had somehow missed. Brinkley writes, “[Phillips] points in particular to the Southern Baptist Convention, once a scorned seceding minority of the American Baptist Church but now so large that it dominates not just Baptism itself but American Protestantism generally.”
Where should one begin? With the fact that there never was an “American Baptist Church”? With the ludicrous use of “Baptism” to refer to Baptists collectively? The ignorance of Phillips and Brinkley is one thing, but can’t the New York Times afford literate copy editors? For all their hysterical fears of the religious right, these people cannot be bothered to learn the basic history and vocabulary pertinent to understanding those whom they view as their mortal enemies. This is pathetic.
As Bottum noted, an elementary historical knowledge of religion in American public life suggests that what we are witnessing is more like a return to normalcy. Nonetheless, in the MSM the drumbeat continues, “The Fundamentalists are coming! The Fundamentalists are coming!” Philip Jenkins’ new book, Decade of Nightmares , nicely traces the ways in which the widespread rejection of leftist radicalisms gave rise to the leftist alarums of the 1970s and 1980s, including apocalyptic scares about the dangers of the “religious right.” Liberals, writes Jenkins, “warned not just of setbacks but of the imminent rise of a patriarchal theocratic state of the sort imagined in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale .”
Whether it’s Kevin Phillips, or Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan sounding the alarm about the theocratic “Christianists,” or the New York Times Book Review , what Richard Hofstadter described as the paranoid style in American politics goes on and on.
In addition to which :
In his typically winsome manner, Joseph Bottum writes in “The Mad Scientists’ Club” about the difference between science nerds of thirty years ago and those who came up in a world of computerized reality. This is in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . Kids used to be Newtonians, fiddling with something like how the real world works, while now they’re Cartesians “whose first idea for a problem is to model it on a computer.” Those who remember the excitement of launching a model rocket—a real model rocket—will recognize a deep change that is underway, and perhaps unstoppable. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?
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