Sunday, January 14, 2007

Overriding a Veto on Stem Cell Research

Thinking that you will go to hell if you use embryonic stem cells to cure paralysis is as foolish as thinking that you will go to heaven if you fly a hijacked airplane into a sky scraper. Of these two irrational sets of beliefs, the second is the least dangers, because it threatens to kill far fewer people.

House Resolution 3 passed the House recently. Earlier, President Bush used his only veto to date to veto similar legislation that passed the Senate.

Chances are, he will use his veto again. This means that this bill will fail unless enough votes are brought in its favor to override a veto. In the House of Representatives, it takes 290 votes to override a Presidential veto. The bill passed with 253 votes. This means that between today, and the day the House votes to override the veto, either 37 Representatives have to be brought to their senses, or the bill will die – and, in a very real sense, there is a potential for millions of people who to die or suffer permanent sickness or injury who might have otherwise lived or been cured or healed.

I am aware of the protests that embryonic stem cell research does not hold the promise that its supporters claim it to have. Yet, these people speak from scientific credentials that tell us that the Earth is 6,000 years old, evolution never happened CO2 is not a greenhouse gas, and that an invasion of Iraq would be fast, easy, and cheep. In other words, these are people who are experts at seeing what they want to see when they look at the data – rather than what is already there.

There is actually more on the table here than just the issue of saving lives, curing the sick, and healing the injured (including, by the way, over 10,000 Americans who have acquired debilitating injuries in the name of helping Bush save face – and an unknown number of Americans who will suffer such injuries in the future).

This is a very potent example of harm done in God’s name.

It rests in the fact that there is no real difference between the Representative who will vote ‘no’ on this legislation for religious reasons (and the President who will say ‘veto), and the suicide bomber with his finger on the button. Except, the Representative does not do us the favor of destroying himself in the process.

I am sorry that this sounds harsh. But the equation holds, in spite of its harshness.

One may protest, “The Representative is doing this for good reason. He thinks that he is saving innocent lives. He thinks that he is serving a kind and benevolent God who is the source of all morality, who is infinitely just and would bestow infinite kindness on us if we would only accept His ways above all others.”

Yeah, that’s what they all say.

Suicide bombers are not motivated by pure hate either. By their act of self-sacrifice in the name of God, many think that they earn the right to name those who will join them in Heaven. They do this – not because they love to maim and kill others, but because they want to buy eternal happiness for their friends and family members. They act from the most noble of motives. However, religiously-grounded beliefs turn these noble motives into an act of barbaric destruction.

Sound familiar?

There is a difference, and this difference does lend a shade of grayness that distinguishes the two acts. The Representative does not hate his victims. He considers his victims to be unfortunate collateral damage in his pursuit of God’s will. He would rather that his act kill and maim nobody – while the suicide bomber kills as many people as possible.

Yet, it is ironic that, even though both would wish things were different, the Representative will end up killing and maiming far more people in the name of God than the suicide bomber. (At least, until the would-be suicide bomber gets to put his finger on a voting button or the pen that signs the law, veto, executive order, or signing statement in a country that lacks institutional safeguards.)

This one difference does not erase the similarities – the real-world death, injury, and disease that would not have otherwise existed if not for the irrational beliefs of those who could have prevented it.

A reader might protest, “But these Representatives are our friends and neighbors, our family members – or are loved and admired by those we care about. How can you possibly compare them to terrorists?”

In fact, I expect that some people would get absolutely furious at any who would draw such a connection.

Yet, even here, it is not difficult to imagine that the suicide-bomber or terrorist lives with the same type of support structure. The Shiite or Sunni mother in Iraq also has problems handling the idea that her son, brother, father, best-friend’s son, and the like deserves any type of harsh condemnation for his deeds and actions. She is going to be angry at any who casts them in an unfriendly light. Yet, the fact that such a claim elicits such a harsh emotional response does not make it false. The issue is whether or not the claim is true, not whether people like it.

Our message to the friend of the would-be suicide-bomber/terrorist, and the person who has the ear of a Representative who might refuse to override a Presidential veto when the time comes, is the same.

If you are somebody who cannot stand the thought of one of these people being evil, then I ask you a favor.

Go to these people and tell them, when they have their finger on the button and are ready to perform an act that will result in people being killed and maimed who would not have otherwise been killed and maimed – to pause for one second and consider their actions. The free ticket to heaven for those that a terrorist bomber selects, and the ensouled blastocyst that the Representative seeks to defend equally fictitious entities. In both cases, you are bringing about real-world suffering for the sake of an imaginary good.

The Representative might answer, “You can’t know that these entities are not persons deserving of life, and I am sworn to protect the innocent. I must protest these entities.”

I answer that I can know this – because that which has no desires has no interests, and that which has no interests cannot be harmed in any morally relevant sense. However, even if somebody wants to play the ‘benefit of the doubt’ argument, we must ask where the greatest cause for doubt exists. Does it exist with the blastocyst, or does it rest with the real, living person in a real hospital facing a real death and real injury. You have a button. If you press it, a person you can see before you will die and there is a vague and ill-defined chance that somebody in a distant room might die. Do not press it, and there is a vague, ill-defined chance that somebody in some distant room will live and the person before you will certainly die. On which side does “the benefit of the doubt” lay?

I claim to know that there is nobody in that other room. Yet, even if I am wrong, the benefit of any doubt weighs in favor of the real person that one can see and touch.

They may answer, “You are asking me to abandon my faith. I cannot do that. I have faith that it is better that I blow up these infidels and buy my friends and family a ticket into heaven. I have faith that these blastocysts are ensouled and protecting them is more important than fighting death, disease, and injury among the real-world people who surround me.”

Yet the proper response to their insistence can never be, “Oh, if you feel that strongly about it, then go ahead. Of course, I cannot allow real-world death, disease, and injury come between you and your faith.”

Having said this, there is another important principle that I need to repeat in the context of this discussion. It is the principle that the only legitimate response to words are counter-words; the only legitimate to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign; that violence becomes legitimate only against those who are actually using or planning violence. This principle is necessary to keep the peace. If we allow violence in response to words or political campaigns, then we will be surrounded by violence, because too many arrogant people insist that their view cannot be mistaken and they are the ones who may use violence in defense of their words or their party.

The proper response to use against those who claim that their faith justifies death, disease, and injury is to explain, in posts like this, that they are horribly misguided. The proper response to a political campaign to elect politicians who will use faith as a reason to allow death, disease, and injury is to campaign against them. The proper response to the would-be suicide bomber is to identify him and confine him before he gets a chance to act.

We have as much reason to fear and to campaign against the politician who would vote “no” when the time comes to override Bush’s inevitable stem-cell veto as we do to apprehend and confine the would-be suicide bomber – and every reason to pursue those options with equal enthusiasm.


Anonymous said...

Wow, your last few posts hit me even harder than your usual stuff. Masterfully done, sir!

I should proofread this and mail it to my congressman so that his secretary can ignore it before the veto override vote!

Anonymous said...

Yo, straight up, stem cells are the future of medicine and over 130 million americans need regenerative medicine, including those with heart disease and diabetes

Anonymous said...

Where do you get the right to choose what is moral i.e. what is right and wrong? Does not your sense of right and wrong come from the All Mighty Himself? Or should we listen to you a mere man. Stem cells need not even come from fetuses, they are in everyones nose and if you leave only one they will grow back. They have also been used with success in obtaining them from pig fetuses, (our closest DNA species next to monkeys). If man makes the standard for what's right and wrong then there is no standard! Atheist Ethicist is an oxymoron!

Anonymous said...

Where do you get the right to choose what is moral i.e. what is right and wrong? Does not your sense of right and wrong come from the All Mighty Himself? Or should we listen to you a mere man. Stem cells need not even come from fetuses, they are in everyones nose and if you leave only one they will grow back. They have also been used with success in obtaining them from pig fetuses, (our closest DNA species next to monkeys). If man makes the standard for what's right and wrong then there is no standard! Atheist Ethicist is an oxymoron!

Anonymous said...

If your imaginary sky-daddy makes the standard for what is right and wrong, than there is no standard.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There is no "sense of right and wrong." This "sense" is a myth that allows people to assign their bigotries and prejudices an external reality so that they feel jusified in doing things harmful to others.

I know people whose "sense of right and wrong" tells them that blacks and whites should be separate - that interracial relationships are wrong.

In history, people who have committed the greatest attrocities listened to a "sense of right and wrong" that told them that they were doing great things.

Most slave owners had no sense at all that slavery was wrong.

People who engaged in inquisitions, crusades, jihads, and similar campaigns of mass killing had no "sense" that their actions were wrong.

Many people celebrated and refused to give up the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and segregation, and even the lynching of blacks during the century after the Civil War.

Like I said, people's so called "sense of right and wrong" is simply an attempt to assign an external justification to one's prejudices, so that one can act in ways harmful to others without guilt.

Kristopher said...

why do people in the comments keeping asking you where your morality comes from. you have writen so much on the topic already the arguements are easy to find if they were even remotely interested....

listen. if you think alonzo has made a mistake in his moral reasoning you need to attack where it comes from not ask him over and over and over again to explain how he has the "gall" to assert moral truths.

he has a link to to it sitting off to the right of every single post

frankly i am amazed that he keeps answering this same question over and over whith such adept politeness. when i would have just copy pasted a link to his previous arguments without saying a word and be done with it... alonzo you patiance is truly commendable. and if i have asked question you have answered time and time again in multiple places i am so sorry.