Thursday, October 26, 2006

Religious Barriers to Stem Cell Research

Michael J. Fox created some commercials for some political candidates that illustrate some of the points that I made in yesterday's post - that it is not an act of bigotry to criticize religious beliefs and practices that motivate people to do harm to others.

In this case, the commercial concerned stem cell research. Fox created a commercial that endorsed candidates who supported embryonic stem cell research, and urged voters to reject those who opposed (or, worse, attempted to criminalize) this type of research.

Though Fox’s advertisement was in support of a Democratic candidate, it would not be accurate to say that this is a partisan commercial. Fox also has campaigned for Arlen Specter (R- Penn), who has also advocated stem cell research.

Yesterday, I wrote that it is not an act of bigotry to reject a politician whose religion blinds him to real-world solutions to real-world problems. I also write that, when a religion commands its followers to engage in actions that are harmful to others, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn that religion. We can do so when a religion commands its followers to fly airplanes into sky scrapers or to seek weapons of mass destruction to detonate in an 'infidel' country. We can do so when the religion commands that heretics be burned at the stake or allows a whole race to be treated as chattel slavery. We may do so when a religion causes people to act in ways that force people like Michael J. Fox getting to the ravages of a disease such as Parkinson's.

Michael J. Fox and others like him are being offered up as a human sacrifice to somebody else's God. In fact, no good comes from these policies, and much harm comes from them. These people, because of their superstition and ignorance, are making the world worse than it would otherwise been - far worse for people such as Michael J. Fox. At least the virgin thrown into the volcano suffers only a short while.

Having said this, there is a flaw in Fox's message. Fox basically says, "Because this policy benefits people like me, it is right." Those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research are not objecting to the fact that it would benefit people like Fox. They are saying that certain actions are wrong even though they would produce benefit for others.

For example, let us assume that 10-year-old children produce an enzyme that, when injected into an adult, would cure cancer. However, the enzyme cannot be harvested except by killing the child. In this case, if Fox produced a commercial saying, "Candidate X supports killing 10-year-old children to get us the enzyme that would cure us; Candidate Y opposes these killings; therefore, vote for Candidate X," we would immediately reject that argument. We would (correctly) say, "You are missing the point, and you are making a fallacious appeal to pity."

The real issue is not whether embryonic stem-cell research will benefit people such as Michael J. Fox. The real issue is whether the cure involves the moral equivalent of killing young children for the purpose of treating or curing an adult. Fox's commercial is, in fact, a question-begging appeal to pity.

Sorry, but it's true, and I am a major fan of promoting honest argument.

The commercial is not worthless. Insofar as I promote a form of utilitarianism, and hold that all value depends on desire, the aversion that people have to the symptoms of diseases such as Parkinson's are 'reasons for action' for policies that will help them avoid those symptoms. However, the real moral question is either, (1) is it the case that embryonic stem-cell research the moral equivalent of killing a 10-year-old child, or (2) should we weaken the aversion to killing children so that we can harvest cures for these diseases?

There are religious arguments for considering an embryo the moral equivalent of a 10-year-old child. However, not all religious reasons are equal. There were religious reasons for the suicide attacks on 9/11. Some people have religious reasons for detonating weapons of mass destruction in an American or European city. There were religious reasons for slavery, for the holocaust, for the burning of infidels, and for crusades and jihads throughout the ages.

There were religious reasons for throwing virgins into volcanoes.

The mere fact that somebody has a religious reason for acting in ways that are harmful to others such as Michael J. Fox is not sufficient justification for inflicting harm on people like Michael J. Fox.

In this case, I can think of no non-religious reason for this moral equivalence.

Desire utilitarianism clearly does not draw any type of moral equivalence. Desire utilitarianism holds that all value depends on desires. Harm consists in thwarting strong desires (while thwarting weak desires count as 'hurt' but not 'harm'). An embryo has no desires. Therefore, it cannot be harmed in a morally relevant sense. There should be no aversion to using embryos to provide assistance to people such as Michael J. Fox.

This is just another case - in a much-too-long list of cases - in which religion has caused or is causing people who would otherwise be good and virtuous people to do real-world harm and to destroy real-world-lives for no good reason.

To say that, in the name of religious tolerance, we must allow people like Michael J. Fox to endure potentially avoidable suffering and early death is as absurd as saying that, in the name of religious tolerance, we must allow people to hijack airplanes and fly them into sky scrapers or to set off weapons of mass destruction in American cities.

The fact is, when a religion commands its follows to do harm to innocent people, we need not tolerate it. It is quite permissible to take a stand against it - to condemn it - and to deny to those religious followers the power (be it political or military) to do the harms that they seek to do.

7 comments:

vermeil2002 said...

A couple thoughts on this subject.
Interesting comparison to a living child. I think a lot a religious people tend to take that sort of view without giving the comparison any real consideration for the obvious....and I think that's what makes so many of us turn purple and spat our knees.
There are a couple factual differences between the two. In fact, to prove a point, I believe you could bring this all the way back to a semi-formed fetus to make the comparison more "apples to apples".

Now, I'm no scientist but I don't believe you can freeze a fetus, thaw it and "reanimate it" (for lack of a better term) without consequence.
I'm even more certain you can't do that with ten-year-old children because I think many parents would do it just to get some rest.

I'm also confident that, if it were necessary, the practice of aborting a half-dozen, second-trimester fetuses in order to get one child for a wealthy couple would be frowned upon. Third trimester would be illegal in some places and ten-year-olds would be completely out.

Can you imagine if the only way we knew that In Vitro was successful was to wait until the children were ten and then pick the one you want to keep?

If a child dies, even if it is murdered, the parent has the right to decide if that child will be an organ donor. I'd like to know if the mother still has the right to declare her child an organ donor if she murders the child.

Anonymous said...

Well I’ve read your blogs and comments on Rush Limbaugh’s diatribe about Michael J. Fox. I know it stirred your hearts and misty eyes to see the beloved star shaking and quaking uncontrollably in the misleading ad. Yes, I said misleading. First of all Michael J. Fox stated that he’d overmedicated himself before the commercial was filmed. Either over medication or under medication of the type he’s taking is known to cause/increase tremors. So Rush Limbaugh had it wrong. Rush said he’d not taken his meds.
The second misnomer that the commercial promotes is that Republicans, especially the “religious right” are against stem cell research. As people who claim to put such a high value on “truth” I have to say there is little of it found in the ranks of so called ‘free thinkers.’ Actually the ‘religious right’ faction of the Republican party is also in favor of stem cell research. What they’re against is embryonic stem cell research. The promising results from stem cells are almost exclusively from adult stem cells which can be gleaned from many sources including, get this—FAT. In fact, embryonic stem cells are less desirable since any cure they may provide comes with the downside of requiring anti-rejection drugs, because the donor and patient are different people. But if, for example Michael J. Fox received a cure developed from his own stem cells then he would not require anti-rejection drugs with all of their dangers and side effects. So next time you post I would certainly hope that you ‘truth seekers’ would do a little more scholarly research. Oh forgive me, if you would have done that you might believe in God.

Thayne said...

Anonymous --

Are you suggesting that the religious right is opposed to embryonic stem cell research because it doesn't work well? Really? Is that honest?

If scientific integrity is the real concern, then why don't we let scientists decide what to research? Why should law makers tell them scientitsts how to conduct research?

Do you know for sure that good results are unattainable from emryonic stem cells; or that it's impossible that they could ever yield better results than adult stem cells? I'm wagering you don't know that. Only research can ever hope to answer those questions.

So, unless the religious right can come up with a substantive moral argument against embyronic stem cell research, they should butt out and let scientists do science.

Thayne said...

Oops, I meant to say:

"Why should law makers tell scientitsts..."

not

"Why should law makers tell them scientists..."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alonzo Fyfe said...
Anonymous

Actually, virtually everything you said in your post is fiction. It is only reasonable to assume that you are in the habit of hearing what you want to hear and taking it as gospel, without making much of an effort to determine if it is true or false.

Some of your falsehoods are rather blatant - such as your implication that I failed to distinguish between embryonic and adult stem cell research. A simple reading of the posting will reveal this error.

As for adult stem cells being a better source of cures than embryonic stem cell research - an article in Science magazine in July, 2006 addressed that claim while the Senate was discussing legislation.

The scientists who wrote the article say that claims such as those you made above "mislead lay people and cruelly deceive patients."

See: "The Sacred Archway: Embryonic Stem Cell Research"

Indeed, your words are intellectually reckless. You show that you are quite comfortable with the thought that your actions may result in the suffering of death of hundreds of millions of people - and even that does not inspire you to do the research to determine if your claims are true.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

It is also the case that something should be said about your 'overmedicated' comment.

You are making all sorts of false assumptions about the nature of Parkinson's disease - assumptions that you may want to be true because it gives you an excuse to view people like Fox and myself with contempt, but which have no connection with reality.

(1) You assume that the overmedication is intentional. You assume wrongdoing, and require others to prove their innocence. Parkinson's is a disease where it is impossible to know exactly how much medication to take, because it is impossible to know how bad the disease will be at any given moment.

(2) You assume that if he had guessed correctly on the amount of medication to take, he would have looked normal. In fact, his symptoms would have been different (less saying from side to side, more twitching of arms and legs) but not better.

(3) You completely ignore the fact that some of us do not need to see Michael J. Fox on a TV screen to know what Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, or airplane accidents or injuries suffered in defense of this country (in which important organs suffered significant damage and, with embryonic stem cells, may be replaced or repaired).

You are doing a very good job of not only proving your ignorance, but in proving that you place no value on learning the truth before you speak and write - even though you are expressing opinions on matters that affect hundreds of millions of lives.

Anonymous said...

You are doing all of the assuming which is typical.
(1) He (MJF) knows how much medication to take and so do his doctors. It's not that big a mystery.
(2)I never assumed that he (MJF) would 'look normal' even if he'd taken the correct dose of medication. (Once again you made the assumption). I simply stated that over medicating would amplify the symptoms which is a fact and admitted to by MJF prior to the filming of the commercial. Have you seen the commercial? It's pure politics!
(3)The best and most promising research is connected to adult stem cells. Also, embryonic stem cell (ESCs) may provide cures, however they all would come with a price tag--namely anti-rejection drugs, with all of their side effects.
(4) To say, "unless the religious right can come up with a substantive moral argument against embyronic stem cell research, they should butt out and let scientists do science" sounds good but a continuation of a 'slippery slope' akin to 'letting scientists determine' things like who should live and/or die based on their assessment of 'quality of life' ala Dr. Kevorkian. Bible believers feel they have a "substantive moral argument against embyronic stem cell research" (your words)since they believe that life begins at conception according to the Bible and already feel that their tax dollars are used to murder the unborn at abortion mills. For God's sake, 45 million unborn children have been aborted in the US since Roe v Wade. That's more than the population of the ten largest cities in America. Who knows if we haven't killed off the scientist who would have perfected these cures among that 45 million. Furthermore you should note that there are scientists and doctors who insist that the most promising research is connected to ASCs, not ESCs. ESC's implanted in tissues, for example tend to form tumors and accumulate mutations commonly observed in human cancers. That hasn't been observed in ASCs. Prior to 2002 some thought that ASC's showed less useful at producing different kinds of cells in the human body than ESC's. In early 2002 a team at the University of Minnesota found stem cells in the bone marrow of adults capable of becoming any of the 220 tissues of the human body. That changed in 2002, when New Scientist revealed that Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota had discovered "multipotent adult progenitor cells", or MAPCs, apparently capable of giving rise to all tissues in the body, just like embryonic stem cells (26 January 2002, p 4). The work was later published in Nature. So when you point your finger at me and say
"you're proving your ignorance and have no value on learning the truth" check your self, there are three fingers pointing at you. You should realize that resorting to such ad-hom. attacks reveal what kind of a person you really are.