Religious bias represses medical research

Brad Unangst

Andrew Wantland’s parents did nothing when the 12-year-old began seizing with coughing fits, violently vomiting and rapidly losing weight. He was emaciated – unable to eat, drink or even make eye contact – when untreated diabetes finally took his life. His parents were Christian Scientists – they didn’t believe in medicine; they believed in religion.

Andrew’s case is similar to cases of other children. They are innocent victims of the inference of religious dogma with medical science. Unfortunately, devotion to religion frequently supercedes the moral responsibility we have to other human beings. This is certainly true of Bush’s compromised position on stem cell research.

Stem cell research promises a panacea to countless degenerative diseases. It could possibly be used to regenerate nerve cells to repair damaged spinal cords, helping paralyzed people walk again; it could be used to slow or reverse the degeneration caused by Parkinson’s disease; it could offer treatments for Alzheimer’s and diabetes. And this is only the beginning of the foreseeable possibilities. Some medical researchers believe it could be used to create a supply of organs for patients whose bodies have failed.

Religious obstinacy is inhibiting these medical advances. Religious conservatives object to stem cell research, citing their religious biases while not understanding the science. Unfortunately, Bush is in the pocket of the religious right – right next to their Bibles. Their political influence has caused Bush to present an untenable compromise on stem cell research.

Though Bush approved 64 existing stem cell lines for research, only 24 or 25 of these lines are actually available – and some of these lines might never pan out. Critics contend that Bush’s decision could jeopardize future treatments and therapies by inhibiting this promising research.

Bush should be heeding the advice of doctors, researchers and medical ethicists; he should not be consulting the religious right. Our Constitution establishes the separation of church and state – religious groups should not be bending Bush’s ear. He should not be swayed by the declarations of the pope. If Bush is considering the view of the pope and religious conservatives, why not consult voodoo practitioners? What do they have to impart to the issue? If we’re going to entertain one religious perspective, why not another?

The religious perspective shouldn’t be central in the stem cell discussion at all. The debate on stem cell research isn’t about metaphysics. The typical points of contention in the abortion debate – involving difficult questions of when life begins – are irrelevant to the current debate on stem cell research.

Stem cell research does not involve cloning or creating embryos; scientists only want to use embryos donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics having received consent from their patients. The destruction of these embryos is not in question. The question then becomes whether, rather than just terminating these embryos, medical researchers should be able to use them to produce stem cells.

So what is the religious contention to stem cell research? It is said using embryos for this research disrespects human life. But isn’t it more disrespectful of human life to repress life-saving therapies because of archaic religious sensibilities? We presently use organs from the recently deceased to save the lives of other human beings – why shouldn’t we use discarded embryos? It’s peculiar how this religious stance shows more concern about the dead than the living. Furthermore, how is using the alleged 60 stem cell lines that came from embryos any less disrespectful of human life?

If these religious opponents want to mount an attack, they should mount their attack against fertility clinics. At least this would be consistent with the religious right’s anti-abortion position. But oddly, they do not take issue with these firms, even though these firms regularly discard embryos.

Religious opponents of stem cell research frequently present the tired argument that using discarded embryos is the first precarious step on a “slippery slope” – ultimately resulting in some terrifying world where human beings are a commodity, like the surreal baby harvesting depicted in the movie “The Matrix.” These opponents warn that if we take the step of using embryos for stem cell research, it’s just a matter of time.

Such forewarnings represent simple fear-mongering. If religious conservatives fear
science will exploit human life, they should feel far more threatened by the proliferation of rogue scientists who will be tempted to create embryos in the laboratory as a result of Bush’s obtuse legislation. If scientists feel unduly prohibited by Bush’s unreasonable regulations – providing only an insufficient supply of stem cell lines – zealous scientists may be tempted to create embryos themselves.

If Bush wants to emphasize the sanctity of human life, he should fully endorse stem cell research and set down specific moral guidelines that foster this humanitarian research. Stem cell research should progress because we respect human life.

Stem cell therapies could help our children, our parents and grandparents. We could help the diabetic, the paralyzed, those stricken with heart disease and so many others. If we do nothing, we are as guilty as the parents of Andrew Wantland, who let him suffer and die because of their religious biases. Every day we wait, we allow injury, disease and disability to persist and destroy lives.

 

Matthew Brophy’s column appears alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at
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