Secularists Won’t Be Appeased By New Stem-cell Breakthrough


By: Robert E. Meyer

Recently there has been a celebrated news release, detailing a new breakthrough in stem-cell research, which may make the existing moral controversy over the use of embryonic stem-cells moot.

While it’s still too early to tell if this new procedure using adult stem-cells from skin will produce the anticipated results, I have a feeling those perched exclusively in the embryonic stem-cell research camp, will be left unsatisfied.

The reason for my hunch is the way the stem-cell controversy has been misrepresented all along.

The fact that many religious leaders are tentatively, but enthusiastically, endorsing this new advance, refutes the charge that persons of strong religious convictions are Luddites trying to stifle scientific progress. This is an absurd canard that refuses to die a natural and merciful death.

A second false claim, is that the Bush administration sold out to the “religious-right,” when the president banned government funding of embryonic stem-cell research several years ago.

Bush actually took the middle ground of compromise. Bush did not ban embryonic stem-cell research that was privately funded, nor prohibit continued research on the stem-cell lines already existing. To do so would have been the more socially conservative position. Bush’s “concessions” were viewed by some as his lack conservative conviction.

Of course, many will argue that embryos are routinely discarded as a byproduct of fertility treatments. I am personally opposed to that aspect of fertility procedures. Yet, the point of criticizing Bush because of that situation is irrelevant, because the government does not fund in vitro fertilization therapy. Thus, Bush is perfectly consistent in his approach, even if he is found to be wrong in his ultimate conclusions.

If embryonic stem-cell research flounders as a privately funded endeavor, it tells you something about how the scientific and financial benefits of such research are perceived by those who ought to know.

Another false implication, is that the connections to religious pro-life/anti-abortion arguments are the only objections given by those opposed to embryonic research. In fact, good arguments could be made adhering to the scientific and medical aspects of stem-cell research alone.

I have read several pieces emphasizing the problems with tumors, abnormalities and cancers, that are a function of the embryonic side of this research. These issues outweigh, or, at the very least, counterbalance the benefits of versatility in therapeutic applications.

In addition, we should not fail to mention that virtually all progress has been realized through the adult variety of stem-cell research, including this latest discovery.

In spite of that, why do few people know much about the therapeutic value of adult stem-cells? Why have many insisted the embryonic stem-cells are the only legitimate answer going forward?
Finally, we must ask if it’s actually a bad idea that certain types of research are hindered by moral or religious objections? To require that medical science be tethered to ethical concerns is merely an expectation within a civilized and conscientious society.

If it were not important, we might as well capitulate to rank utilitarianism, and conclude that we should clone humans for replacement body parts.

We can plainly see the legal and moral inconsistences condoned in our culture. Currently in my community, a man is being accused of attempted murder for slipping his girlfriend a drug that causes pregnancy miscarriage. The woman miscarried early in her pregnancy as a result of this malfeasance. Had the woman voluntarily aborted the baby at the same stage of development, the act would have passed legal muster. Do we have some confusion here?

If this argument is based on the idea that there is a distinction between what biologically defines a human being, and what is functionally defined as “personhood,” then we no longer appeal to science, but philosophy and metaphysics.

We should all be happy that a medical discovery has been made that may be able to satisfy the ethical concerns of moral conservatives. We should celebrate a potential bridge over a troubling disagreement between them and those of a more secular and pragmatic mind set.

But I’m willing to bet many will still insist that embryonic research is all the more essential, based on some ethereal medical “promise” assigned to embryonic stem-cell research, which remains largely undefined and unrealized. They have made hyperbolic attempts to misrepresent its near-term potential. They have either forgotten, or have chosen to ignore that any common-place applications are likely years away given either scenario.

Case in point is the attempt by current Presidential candidate John Edwards, who suggested during the 2004 campaign, that people like the late Christopher Reeve, would soon be up and walking, if embryonic research was governmentally funded. We might wonder who is calling who a fanatic?

We will now find out if secularists are more concerned with medical advances, or if they are simply using the issue to attack what they perceive as a destructive religious hegemony.

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