Keep religion out of University research

In the Feb. 17 Science Times section of The New York Times, Woo Suk Hwang and Shin Yong Moon, the South Korean researchers who recently cloned human embryos for stem cell research, were interviewed about their work. During the interview the reporter asked about the religious tradition each man follows and its relationship to his work.

Moon is a Methodist and many of the people who worked on their research are Christians by faith. I also found Hwang’s response extremely compelling: “I am a Buddhist, and I have no philosophical problem with cloning. And as you know, the basis of Buddhism is that life is recycled through reincarnation. In some ways, I think, therapeutic cloning restarts the circle of life.” Interestingly, neither man finds any reason in either of their respective faith systems to avoid working with cloned embryos in the field of stem cell research.

I mention the interview with Moon and Hwang because I think their comments regarding science, religion and bioethics are important to consider here at the University.

The bill recently introduced in the Legislature by Rep. Tim Wilken, R-Eagan, blocking any state funding for the University if stem cell researchers work with human embryos beyond the approved Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, is short-sighted and irresponsible legislation.

While Wilken is using the mantra of fiscal accountability with the legislation, his bill is more theocratic than bureaucratic. If Wilkin wants to make a case for fiscal responsibility, he is going after the wrong researchers. The apparently illegitimate embryos would come from fertility clinics where the parents have chosen to donate the unused embryos to researchers.

The University stem cell researchers are not creating these embryos for research, but using a vital commodity that might otherwise be destroyed. I fail to see how using the extra, donated embryos is an unwise fiscal policy. It is a good way to use all available resources given the importance of the research.

The apparent bureaucratic rationale Wilken asserted put aside, if only for a moment, reveals a broader theocratic agenda in the legislation. For the record, I have not spoken with Wilken about his personal religious beliefs and I will not pretend to speak for him on the topic. My interest is in a broader question regarding the inappropriateness of religious theology controlling scientific research.

Again and again, religious conservatives (in a wide array of faiths) want to believe the 5- to 6-day-old embryos (called blastocysts) containing 50 to 100 cells constitute life. I say with no hesitation or uncertainty that people making these arguments are wrong. While the embryos represent the fusion of a sperm and an egg – or a clone in the case of Hwang and Moon’s work – these assemblages of cells are not living creatures. To believe otherwise is delusional.

We sentient humans arbitrarily assign rights to living creatures on a daily basis, and the reason that is possible is that life and death, as concepts and practices, will always resist being concretely defined. Nor is life sacred by its sheer existence at the cellular level, and religious arguments about the sanctity of microscopic life are a devaluation of what living and dying entail.

Now, in no way am I saying living creatures should not be respected – we/they should. The problem for us modern-American humans has always been the ease with which respect can disappear until it is suddenly an issue of party politics. So I agree with Hwang.

We should spend more time recycling our cellular materials than worrying whether children’s souls are being lost at the hands of researchers. That is why I think religious thinkers’ writings on science are an important philosophical component in bioethical debates, if only to speak truth to power. Theology, however, is not bioscience research and confusing the two at the suggested expense of state funding for the University is a sad mistake.

John Troyer welcomes comments at [email protected]