Life And Death Issues In The Laboratory

Posted: Jul 09, 2001 12:00 AM
Science and religion often duke it out. We the people take ringside seats to watch and determine the winners and losers. In one corner are the scientific (and often arrogant) absolutists, who seek truth through knowledge with what they describe as open minds: They see themselves as crusaders on behalf of science to make a better life through chemistry. But as Einstein warned, science can be both a blessing and a curse for mankind. Religious men and women who seek truth through faith frequently support the scientists, but not always. Religious folk often accuse the scientists as suffering minds so open they risk having their brains fall out. Some of the fights have been the stuff of colorful history. Perhaps the most famous fight took place in 17th century Italy, pitting Pope Urban VIII against Galileo. The pope insisted that man was the center of the universe. Galileo, the father of experimental science, who looked through his telescope, defended the theories of Copernicus, observing that the earth revolved around the sun. The pope won by a technical knockout - he had the Inquisition at his service - and Galileo was silenced for the short run. But not in the long run. Two centuries later, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, a renowned orator noted for both wit and sarcasm, lost his match with Thomas Huxley, the scientist known for his clear-headed essays in defense of science. When the bishop attempted to discredit Huxley's defense of Darwin's theory of evolution, he threw a powerful punch, the equivalent of a smashing blow to the jaw. The bishop asked Huxley whether it was "through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?" Huxley's jaw was not so easily broken nor his voice silenced, and with great aplomb responded that he would not be "ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth." The crowd cheered Huxley. We're spectators again at a fight between science and organized religion. It may not be so neatly packaged as the pope vs. Galileo, and the sides aren't so dramatically marked as in Huxley's rout of Wilberforce. But the result will have great significance and should concern us all. The issue is stem-cell research. No great name stands out on either side of the conflict, but the good fight generally pits religious pro-lifers (some Catholics and some evangelicals) against scientists who seek federal money (much of it collected in taxes from religious folk) to conduct research on cells taken from seven-day human "embryos" that have been fertilized with sperm in a laboratory. Such cells will be thrown away whether they are used for research or not. Definitions are important here. Though these fertilized eggs are popularly referred to as embryos, they really aren't, not until implanted in a uterine wall. They are more precisely blastocysts. The distinction is important, and though it doesn't satisfy everybody it is a distinction that many pro-lifers do accept. Pope John Paul II and many Catholics (but by no means all) say that these cells make up human life, that it makes no difference that they will be thrown away. Using them for research is murder and the scientists who want do research on them are killers. However, defenders of the scientific position include many powerful pro-lifers, such as Connie Mack, the former senator from Florida who is both Catholic and Republican. "For me, as long as that fertilized egg is not destined to be placed in a uterus, it cannot become life," he tells Newsweek. "But it can, perhaps, bestow life." His sentiments are echoed by such pro-life absolutists as Senator Orin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, and Tommy Thompson, a Republican from Wisconsin who is secretary of Health and Human Services. These men and many religious pro-lifers who support them argue that this research not only does not conflict with their moral position, but could benefit mankind, holding the promise to develop cures for many diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and perhaps even spinal cord injuries. Like most fights in Washington, stem-cell research has a major political component and will ultimately be refereed by the president and Congress. Anyone touched by the scourge of a disease that this stem-cell research may help cure can't quite see preserving the rights of a blastocyst as a compelling ethical issue. Indeed, with such potential to save lives, this research, it seems to me, is ultimately pro-life.