Stem Cell Smackdown: Part Three
Two ethics scholars plunge into the scientific and moral divide over embryonic stem-cell research.
BY: With Ronald M. Green and Nigel Cameron
Ronald M. Green, chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College, serves on the Ethics Advisory Board of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company.
Nigel Cameron is research professor of bioethics at Chicago-Kent College of Law and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.
Nigel Cameron's latest entry in our brief, but intense dialogue about religion and therapeutic cloning arrives at an interesting moment. Last night, I was seated at dinner next to a woman whose daughter has type-1 diabetes. The woman told me that, following the birth of a second child, her daughter suffered a severe stroke that left her paralyzed on the right side of her body. The woman inquired about the prospects for therapies or cures for her daughter through stem cell and therapeutic cloning research.
This conversation took place almost ten years to the day following the official publication of the report of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel. I served on that panel along with 18 other scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and specialists in the area of reproductive medicine. Our report recommended funding for stem-cell research. We permitted the deliberate creation of human embryos for research "potentially of outstanding scientific and therapeutic value."
Unfortunately, all the work of our panel was swept away when Newt Gingrich's conservative, "Contract with America" Congress came to power in January 1995.
As I spoke to my dinner conversation partner, I reflected on how different things might have been for her daughter if the recommendations in our report had been heeded. I might have been able to tell the woman that clinical trials were now underway on stem-cell transplants for diabetes. Unfortunately, such work is still years off. Too far away, perhaps, to help her daughter.
On the basis of personal experience, I can say that religion has played a crucial role, indeed the crucial role, in this sad history. Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat For Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, a relentless opponent of our panel's work in 1994, has spent the last ten years urging, and perhaps even helping to craft, much of the restrictive legislation that was passed by Congress.
Close on his heels is Judie Brown, head of The American Life League, a conservative Catholic anti-abortion group. Lobbying organizations like the National Right to Life Committee, many of whose members are evangelical Christians, have also been important. In a nation where most citizens are unaware of the issues surrounding research in reproductive medicine, these small, well-organized religiously informed lobbying groups have been enormously influential.
The views that Doerflinger, Brown and others promote are not just religious views: they are parochial religious views, whose validity and significance is compelling to religious adherents primarily on the basis of their distinctive religious beliefs. The core view is that human life (in the sense of morally protectable human personhood) begins at conception. This view is almost exclusively the property of the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant denominations. It is not the view of Judaism or Islam, which, even in their most conservative expressions, tend to hold a developmental or "gradualist" view of moral personhood. It is not the view of most Buddhists and Hindus. Despite their moral discomfort with abortion, these traditions have a much more nuanced set of views about when human life becomes protectable. It is not even the view of Mormons, many of whom hold that embryos do not become protectable until implantation occurs. Most importantly, it is not the view of the hundreds of millions of people in this country and around the world who are not instructed by specific Christian religious teachings.
This same parochial religious view also underlies the opposition to research on therapeutic cloning. Last month, Senator Sam Brownback, a leader of the Senate fight against therapeutic cloning, told the Republican convention "every life must be honored and protected." He added that there should be "respect for the inherent dignity, equality and sanctity of every human life." Mr. Brownback is from Kansas. He shares a conservative Methodist background with many other Kansans. Some of these people supported a ban on the teaching of evolution in Kansas's public schools. By no means all Kansas Methodists share Mr. Brownback's perspective or espouse creationism (indeed, the majority do not). But it seems correct to me to say that those who do hold such views base them largely on "parochial religious beliefs."