The Harm That Religion Does
Free Inquiry, 24, no. 4 (June-July, 2004), p. 17

Ever since August 2001, when President Bush announced his shaky compromise policy on federal funding for research on stem cells, American scientists have been charging that the policy severely impedes progress in this promising new area. Bush's policy allowed federal funding only for research using stem cell lines that were in existence on the date of his speech. Thus, he maintained, such funding would not encourage anyone to destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells, because if they did so, the newly created stem cell lines could not be developed or studied with federal funding.

On August 9,2001, Bush claimed that "more than sixty genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist." Finding these stem cell lines proved difficult, however, and many of them turned out not to be suitable for research. In September 2002, Dr. Curt Civin, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told a congressional committee that "embryonic stem cell research is crawling like a caterpillar" and that stem cells were available "only to those persistent and patient enough to jump through a series of hoops and endure lengthy waits."1 Subsequent reports put the number of stem cell lines that satisfied federal guidelines for funding and were useful for research at eleven. Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, asked President Bush to "expand" his earlier decision and make more cell lines eligible for research with federal funding. The president did not respond to this request.2

Last February, as if to confirm what critics had been saying, South Korean scientists revealed that they had made embryonic human clones from adult women. One of these cloned embryos had developed long enough to permit stem cells to be extracted. The technique would, in principle, make possible the development of individual stem cell lines, taken from those who are ill and would benefit from the stem cells. There would then be no problem of rejection, for the stem cells used in treating the illness would be a perfect genetic match with the cells of the person in need of the treatment. Such research could not be done with federal funding in the United States.

There are good grounds for being cautious about producing new human beings by cloning. Even if we disregard the often hysterical fears of armies of identical clones, at least in our present state of knowledge, there is too great a risk of the cloned human having serious abnormalities. But the Korean scientists were not interested in producing a human child. Their interest was only in developing the early embryo to the blastocyst stage, the point at which stem cells could be obtained. At that stage, the embryo does not have any of its subsequent anatomical features, like a backbone, limbs, or a head. It is not recognizably human or even mammalian and, lacking even the most vestigial brain or nervous system, could not possibly be a conscious being.

Nevertheless, the announcement by the South Korean scientists led to the usual chorus of denunciation from conservative religious leaders. "You can't kill human life in the hopes of finding medicines to save other lives," said Monsignor Elio Sgrecia, vice president of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life and a papal advisor on matters of bioethics. Then he added: "That would be a repeat of what the Nazis did in the concentration camps."3

(A note in passing. When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] drew some parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and the mass slaughter of animals, many Jewish organizations protested, even though PETAs comparison quoted the noted Jewish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, making the same point. Yet Monsignor Sgrecia's much more explicit equation of the Holocaust with the destruction of very early embryos, basically groups of cells incapable of feeling anything at all, appears to have drawn no protests. One can only wonder why not.)

It is not, of course, the fact that another nation is leading the United States in research on stem cells that matters. Science is not the Olympics, and getting worried about national rankings in scientific research is absurd. What does matter is that, without U.S. funding for stem cell research, the global effort in this area moves forward more slowly, because one leading player is absent.

We need to remember how important this area of research is. A fact sheet issued by the White House-yes, President Bush's White House-has stated that: "Many scientists believe that embryonic stem cell research may eventually lead to therapies that could be used to treat diseases that afflict approximately 128 million Americans." The fact sheet goes on to mention possible treatments for Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and heart attacks, as well as advances in basic biology and testing the safety and efficacy of new medicines.4 In other words, the stakes are huge.

No observer of American politics can doubt that, if it were not for religious opposition to the destruction of these early embryos, federal funding would be available for research in this area. If anyone ever tries to tell you that, for all its quirks and irrationality, religion is harmless or even beneficial for society, remember those 128 million Americans-and hundreds of millions more citizens of other nations-who might be helped by research that is being restricted by religious beliefs. Meanwhile, just be glad that Christians in South Korea do not have the political clout that they have in America.

"It is not . . . the fact that another nation is leading the United States in research on stem cells that matters. . . .What does matter is that, without U.S. funding for stem cell research, the global effort in this area moves forward more slowly, because one leading player is absent."

Notes

1. Sheryl Stolberg, "Stem Cell Research Is Slowed by Restrictions, Scientists Say," New York Times, September 26, 2002.

2. Nicholas Wade, "Specter Asks Bush to Permit More Embyronic Stem Cell Lines," New York Times, April 23, 2003.

3. Reuters, as reported on CNN International, February 13, 2004, http://edition.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/europe/02/13/vatican.clones.reul/.

4. White House, "Fact Sheet: Embryonic Stem Cell Research," August 9, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-1.html.


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