10 March 2009

"Science, stem cells, and (pro-life) scruples" -- revisited

In November 2007 this story raised few few eyebrows on the left. Briefly, the story claimed that a recent experiment could put an end to the embryonic stem cell debate. In this posting, I expressed my doubts.

The thing to remember about the U.S. left is that their greatest commitment is denying any victory to the right. It may be that adult stem cells can do all that is hoped for from embryonic, but if the right is opposed to use of embryonic stem cells, for whatever reason, then the left is going to insist on embryonic stem cell research.

What I said in that post was:

[T]here is a certain prejudice here. You know how you know people whom you so dislike that if they are for something you are just positive you need to be against it? There are some people who, in addition to scientific curiosity, just cannot stand the idea that the pro-life movement might "win" something.

Much of this goes back to Galileo's conflict with the Church over heliocentrism, from which the Church still has a black eye. (Of course, the problem is that the Church had made Aristotelianism synonymous with Christian orthodoxy. But any Church which makes that sort of move deserves the black eye it gets as a result.) If anyone associated with any religious perspective objects to a research program, then it is another "Galileo" moment, with affected scientists in the role of persecuted scholar, in the second-oldest conflict in human history: academic freedom versus religious orthodoxy. (The oldest conflict is good versus evil.) Then, of course, there is the conflict between evolutionism and its opponents. "Which scientific breakthrough have these people not opposed?", one might well ask.

So, if "these people" are against it, then we must be on the right track.
It's very easy for me to understand this. It isn't "religion" versus "science". It's religion versus religion. Only the object of worship is different; the nature of the commitments involved is the same.

[T]his -- not religion versus science -- is where the disagreement lies: To us, species membership is morally relevant, while person-hood (manifested by consciousness) is not. To our opponents species membership is morally irrelevant, and person-hood is morally relevant. (This was the same issue in the Terri Schiavo case.) The two positions are primitive (or axiomatic, if you prefer): I can't think of a way to derive either of them from more primitive assertions. So the two positions are discreet and probably don't share much in the way of significant common ground, and therefore the switch from one position to another really does amount to something like a religious conversion. Both positions are ultimately fairly religious in nature.

The religious nature of the two positions makes debate difficult: each side accuses the other of not being rational in approach. Resolution is impossible. Each side thinks it is being rational. But the more obvious religious connection among the pro-life makes it easier for pro-life opponents to charge us with being irrational, easier for them to characterize the debate as one between "religion" and "science".

It is awfully convenient, however, for those who are conscious to decide that this is the attribute separating those with legal protections from those without. Awfully convenient.

No. I don't think the debate has been quelled. Why should scientists not seek after another method of utilizing stem cells just because this one has been discovered. If there are more roads than one to a panacea, why should we be limited to...one? Just because religious nutters object?
Obama's lifting on the ban on fetal stem cell research is proof positive that denying any victory to the right is the end game.

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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