Revolution #62, September 24 2006


Stem Cells and the Ethics of the Theocrats

In mid-July, President Bush used his first ever presidential veto to overturn a Congressional bill that would have expanded federal support for embryonic stem cell research. The bill would have allowed federal funding for scientists to use frozen embryos left over from couples who have gone through in-vitro fertilization that are routinely thrown out anyway.

Under the Bush administration’s policy, federal funds can only be used for about 20 embryonic stem cell lines produced before 2001, from embryos that, in Bush talk, had already been “destroyed.”

The Bush policy limits scientists from developing the number and quality of stem cell lines needed to advance knowledge in this field in the way possible. Embryonic stem cell research holds great potential for understanding and treatment of human diseases that affect literally hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Bush’s veto message claimed that his policy has “struck a balance between the needs of science and the demands of conscience.” He said, “We can achieve scientific progress while living up to our ethical responsibilities.”

Bush and the “Snowflake” Babies

Bush defended his veto by giving a press statement surrounded by parents holding babies produced from frozen embryos.

Bush spoke at the same time hundreds of Lebanese were being killed and a million displaced by Israeli bombardment, greenlighted and freshly armed by his regime. With the blood fresh on his hands, he had the gall to criticize a Congressional bill that would mildly expand medical research, saying it “would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others.”  

The same President who commands troops carrying out atrocities in Haditha and Mahmudiya in Iraq, who spies without warrant, and who is now twisting arms to keep the CIA exempt from Geneva convention rules governing torture, said the decision to allow research that may lead to new medical treatments would cross “a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

The “Crumbling Wall” Between Church and State

Just before the Bush veto, a new web based group called DefCon (Campaign to Defend the Constitution, published an ad in the New York Times titled “Thanks to a Few Religious Extremists, Stem Cell Research Doesn’t Have a Prayer.”

The ad said, “Exercising undue political influence, the religious right is imposing its will on all Americans, through limits on a woman’s right to privacy, a steady assault on gay and lesbian rights, the march to teach creationism as science, and now, a cruel veto that dashes the hopes of millions of Americans. That loud noise you hear is the wall between church and state crumbling to the ground.”

DefCon points out that the limits on funding of stem cell research are part of the “religious right’s assault on scientific and medical progress.” They say, “[a] fundamentalist minority seeks to tear down the wall between religion and state and make biblical precepts, not Constitutional law, the highest authority governing American life.

“Aided by a sympathetic Administration and members of Congress, the religious right has gained extraordinary power and influence. Their voices pervade the media, and they have pursued and attained political power with tenacity and skill, in the process drowning out real experts and credible voices of reason.”

Their website reported that tens of thousands of people have joined DefCon and tens of thousands of emails and phone calls had poured in to Bush and Congress to support embryonic stem cell research and oppose Bush’s veto.

Science and the Terms of the Ethical Debate

Disturbingly, the logic and political terms advanced by Bush and the religious right is affecting even how science is relating to stem cell research. When scientists recently discovered what appears to be a way to extract cells from an embryo and develop stem cell lines while keeping the embryo alive, an article in Nature (one of the top science journals worldwide) commented that the discovery “could enable stem-cell lines to be generated without the controversial destruction of human embryos—but some ethical objections remain.”

In fact, it seems at least part of the strategy of this type of research is to try to figure out a way around Bush and the whole theocratic movement’s “ethical objections” by developing a way to get stem cells without destroying what Bush has called a “human life.” Robert Lanza, head of the team from Advanced Cell Technology that did the work, told the New York Times, “There is no rational reason left to oppose this research.”

But White House spokesperson Emily Lawrimore quickly answered that the new discovery would not satisfy Bush’s objections and said, “Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions.” Fundamentalist groups such as Focus on the Family and the Discovery Institute also attacked any research involving embryos.

What some scientists are not seeing is that Bush and powerful forces at the centers of power and their institutions and foot soldiers throughout society are not interested in “rational reasons” and evidence of fact that scientists bring forward. Instead, rational thought and scientific methods are seen as an essential part of the problem that needs to be stamped out. This is why the truth of evolution is denied, the reality of global warming obscured, and the promise of embryonic stem cell research obstructed.

The Ethics of the Theocrats

Let’s look more deeply at the ethics that Bush and his bunch are imposing as government policy, and seek to impose on a much more thorough level.

According to a letter sent by 80 Nobel laureates in science to Bush in 2001, two decades of embryonic stem cell research in animals has already led to heart muscle cells that can form grafts in damaged heart muscle of mice, nerve cells that have reversed the progression of multiple sclerosis in mice and restored function to the limbs of partially paralyzed rats, and other progress.

There is real hope that through more difficult yet possible research, embryonic stem cells could hold promise in treating widespread problems such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimers, diabetes, and cancer—as well as heart disease and spinal chord injuries.

By obstructing the research needed, the “ethics” and morality Bush and his fundamentalist bunch uphold means the medical needs of huge numbers of people worldwide are arrogantly cast aside.

This “ethics” puts undifferentiated cell clumps smaller than a grain of sand before the lives of tens of millions of human beings already existing in the world. And on top of this, the embryos Bush is so “ethically” defending with his veto will be tossed out anyway!

But this isn’t just madness.

There is a coherence between the policies of the religious fundamentalists on abortion and stem cell research, where first the fetus, and now the embryo—even before it’s implantation into a woman’s womb—are portrayed as a gift from God that no human should mess with.

These are views not based on how things are (for one thing, there is no God!) and how they actually develop. They do not understand, and instead negate, the whole process by which an embryo develops from a small mass of cells with potential for human life, to the birth of a human child.

For this to happen, a fertilized egg (embryo) must first become implanted in a woman’s womb, develop into a fetus, then undergo nine months of development as an integral part of a woman’s body before birth. And it also denies that what defines humanity is our social existence as independently functioning beings (which requires being born!).

Bush, and the Bible, aren’t about being opposed to killing. The Bible itself is filled with killing and slaughter, including the killing of the babies of tribes who have “offended God.” Bush himself revels in war and death, all in the name of America’s “God-given mission.”

These ethics are based on and uphold traditional Biblical morality and traditions chains. They seek to deny women the right to control reproduction because the Bible dictates women are in essence the property of men and the breeders of children for their husbands. And this fundamentalist ethics sees attempts by humans to investigate the world through science, and to change it, as a sinful abomination contrary to acceptance of God’s will.

The policy of the Bush government on embryonic stem cell research is based on religious absolutist dictates and not the truth. And this is part of a much bigger battle shaping up in society, over attempts to impose a theocracy, and to suppress, and do away with, the scientific method and outlook—at least for the great mass of ordinary people.

None of this is in the interest of the great majority of humanity, and it cannot be allowed to win out. Humanity instead needs an ethics and morality based on understanding how the world really is, and how we can develop and change it to the kind of world where humanity could truly flourish.

What will it mean if all the things that might possibly arise from this research are prevented from happening? How will it affect the lives of people now and in the future who are suffering or who may die from the diseases or conditions that stem cell research may someday help overcome?

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