History is filled with examples of people who have used religion to justify horrendous atrocities against their fellow human. However, history may record that the religious act responsible for the most suffering and death is that which would result if we were actually to accept the argument behind the Bush Administration's decision to veto funding for embryonic stem cell research and the failure to override that veto.
The only people among us who would not be harmed by this action are those who die an early death without ever having suffered an organ failure, injury, or disease which embryonic stem cell research may be able to treat or cure. The young, healthy soldier instantly killed by an improvised explosive device or the Iraqi infant killed by an American bomb aimed at a suspected terrorist have not been harmed by this lack of legislation.
The rest of us are not so lucky.
The Temple Priest
Imagine a community in which the priests have gone around and collected all of the antibiotics and inoculations against diseases such as small pox, whooping cough, and polio and locked them in a temple safe. Your child gets an infection or a disease and the doctor says, "If I had some antibiotics, I could treat your child. However, they are all locked in the temple, and we may not go there."
You go to the Temple priest. He says, "We answer to a higher moral calling. Our religion teaches us that only God gets to decide who lives and who dies. Every time a doctor provides a patient with an antibiotic or inoculates him against disease, he is playing God. He is evil. We must answer to a higher calling and let God do His will. We will not let you use these medicines."
It is one thing for the people of some church to say that they have these beliefs and to ban the use of antibiotics and inoculations among its members. We can allow that the voluntary members of a church can decide for themselves, “I accept its restrictions."
It is quite another for the leaders of this church to use the state as an instrument for forcing everybody in society, including those who belong to other religions or who have other views, to follow the practices of this church instead of their own – particularly to the extent of forcing those others to suffer the ravages of disease and injury or even death.
The church who takes it upon itself to force disease, injury, and death on others even harm those who do not become sick, injured, or dead themselves. They will suffer the loss of friends and family. Plus, they must suffer the costs of avoiding illness and injury where the church has banned them from obtaining medical treatment.
The objection that we get from the priests at the temple is that taking the embryo and using it for research is no different than taking a perfectly healthy person and cutting him up against his will and using his tissue to save other lives.
Their claim that no difference exists is false. All value exists as relationships between states of affairs and desires. A rock has no desires. As a result, I can pulverize it if I choose without doing any morally significant harm. Because the rock desires nothing, I cannot thwart its desires. Because I cannot thwart its desires, I cannot do it any morally relevant harm. If other people have desires regarding that rock (e.g., it is a diamond that belongs to somebody), I can do THEM morally relevant harm by pulverizing the rock. However, the morally relevant harm is done to owner, not to the rock.
Transfusions, Antibiotics, Inoculations, and Stem Cells
No doubt the priest at the temple will disagree with me. The priest at the temple says that we can do morally relevant harm to a blob of cells that lacks desires and interests.
There are other priests who say that we do morally relevant harm when we use blood transfusions. There are still other priests who say that we do morally relevant harm when we try to cure disease with inoculations and fight infections with antibiotics. This latter type of priest says that sickness comes from denying God and the proper treatment must be prayer, not medicine.
Those who wish to deny us the benefits of embryonic stem cell research because their religion frowns on the practice are no different than those who would deny to us the use of blood transfusions, antibiotics, and inoculations because their religion does not accept these practices.
Allow those who voluntarily belong to the church to live by its rules. If they do not wish to undergo blood transfusions, then allow them the right to refuse blood transfusions. If they wish to try to cure disease with prayer then let them refuse medical care and see how well they do with prayer. If their religion prohibits them from using embryonic stem cells then let them state to their doctors, "I refuse any treatment that involves the use of embryonic stem cells." Tell the doctors that they must respect those choices even if, to the doctor, they are based on superstitious nonsense.
However, at the same time, no religion has the right to use the state as an instrument for prohibiting others from using blood transfusions, antibiotics, inoculations, or the benefits obtained from blobs of cells that have no desires or interests of their own. No religion has the right to force sickness, injury, and death on people who belong to some other religion, or to deny them the medical care that could treat or cure their condition.
This specific piece of legislation regarded the use of government money to finance research and the use of embryonic stem cell technologies.
Yet, we do NOT allow the existence of religious objections to prohibit the government from paying for blood transfusions.
We do NOT allow a politician to argue, "Because there are people who have religious objections to the use of inoculations and antibiotics we must ban the use of government money to fund inoculations or the use of antibiotics.”
Exactly this same standard is applicable to those who object to the use of whatever medical advances may come from the use of embryonic stem cells. It is wrong for these people to use the government to prohibit people from obtaining a benefit from clumps of cells that have no desires and no interest purely because the prohibitionist’s religion gives these clumps of cells religious significance.
Supporting the Troops
Perhaps we can see this case a little clearer by putting it into the context of soldiers wounded in battle in a fight to defend this country from a foreign aggressor.
Imagine a Commander in Chief standing before an auditorium full of soldiers telling them, “If you should be wounded in battle, we will not use blood transfusions to save your life. We have people in this country who find it morally objectionable, and we think it is wrong to offend them by allowing you to obtain life-sustaining blood transfusions.”
Imagine this Commander in Chief saying, “We will not inoculate you against disease or use antibiotics to fight any infection you may have because there are people in this country who find it morally objectionable, and they refuse to allow you to have the benefit of these medicines.”
Imagine this Commander in Chief standing before a room full of wounded soldiers – missing limbs and organs or laying paralyzed in their beds – and telling them, “We are not going to allow a dime of government money to go into regrowing your limbs or replacing your organs or repairing your broken spines because some religions in our country do not approve of this practice.”
Finally, when President Bush announced and attempted to justify his veto he surrounded himself with children – the results of embryos that had been adopted – and said, “These boys and girls are not spare parts.”
Bush’s statement is such a gross misrepresentation of the case against him that it is difficult not to classify it as a lie. At best he “bore false witness” against his critics by falsely attributing to them a position none of them hold.
These boys and girls are in the world today, with their own desires and interests. Consequently, any harm done to them counts as morally relevant harm. Claiming that his opponents wish to use these children as body parts is as gross a lie as a President can make.
On this account, we must realize that this President has never shown the slightest moral qualms against bearing false witness. Clearly, though he thinks that morally significant harm can be done to blobs of cells without desires, he does not think that morally significant harm can be done to those against which he bears false witness.
More to the point, Bush could not have made less sense than if he had held up a packet of blood or a vial of penicillin and said, “I have prohibited federal use of these medicines because these boys and girls are not spare parts.” Since nobody is talking about using those boys and girls as spare parts, the fact that they are not spare parts is irrelevant to any argument.
What is relevant is whether those with particular religious beliefs may use the State as an instrument to force sickness and death on others because they have the unfounded belief that their God is offended by the use of, for example, blood transfusions, inoculations, antibiotics, or clumps of cells that have no desires or interests of any kind.