Michael Gerson's Odd Spin on the News
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Nov 24, 2007 at 03:08:42 PM EST
This past week it was reported that stem cell researchers may have uncovered a technique that would create embryonic stem cells without the use of embryos or Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Research. Thus it is no surprise that in the Washington Posts's November 23, 2007 edition, Michael Gerson hails the recent discovery in stem cell research as "a vindication" of President George W, Bush's policy of obstructing the pursuit of sound science.

But Gerson is hardly objective.

You remember Michael Gerson, don't you? He's the White House speechwriter who gave us memorable phrases such "axis of evil" and that fear-mongering vision of Saddam's "smoking gun/mushroom cloud." In short, this so-called "pro-life" man has little problem with helping to create an unnecessary, unjustifiable war in which others die and get maimed.

Regular readers know I am a church-going Roman Catholic who disagrees with the hierarchy of my faith on stem cell research. And I do so on both personal and theological grounds. And as a person afflicted with LMG muscular dystrophy I have paid a price for President Bush's intransigence on this issue--Gerson's spin not withstanding.

When President Clinton left office--after paving the way for federal oversight and funding of embryonic stem cell research, I was walking on crutches. Now almost seven years later I am totally wheelchair-bound hardly able to eat or use the bathroom on my own. And now I ask myself over and over again: Has this delay in the research caused me to cross a line of demarcation that will lead to my early death? If that is not so in my case, it is certainly the case in those who over the course of the Bush presidency were afflicted with ALS, cancer and a whole host of other diseases

We should celebrate this development as good news, but opponents of investigating all viable research--such as Gerson--are spinning the news of this one scientific breakthrough to mean that embryonic research should not be pursued. Most objective stem cell researchers still tell us they support continued research using embryonic stem cells. We don't really know what all the capabilities of embryonic cells are yet, so to conclude that reprogrammed cells have those capabilities is premature.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research's Sean Tipton best put this new finding in its proper perspective:

While stem cell science will move forward, it moves forward with one hand behind its back. Ask the incredible scientific talent in this country, we can do more to advance real therapies and cures if we have all the best tools at our disposal. Sure, we're going to make incremental progress, but the patients in this country deserve to know that we have tried every reasonable avenue to take on the challenging diseases of our time.

Although Gerson writes in soothing tones, he is still as strident about this as the leaders of the religious right and the Roman Catholic bishops, as well as most neoconservatives (Robert P. George, Michael Novak and Hadley Arkes, to name a few). The aforementioned also tend to believe that the most unyielding and most orthodox even qualify as being truly religious. In their writings they dismiss any notion of religious dissent over issues such as stem cell research. They openly deride mainline Protestant churches and Catholics of conscience. And what of Judaism that supports embryonic stem cell research on religious principles? For such men, only the evangelical position is religious.

So, let's return to President Bush's "vindication." This strident man in the White House has done nothing but to delay the benefits of all stem cell research--including adult stem cell research (most adult stem cell researchers will explain how embryonic stem cell research is necessary for comparative analysis). It doesn't take a scientific mind to understand that this new discovery would have occurred a lot sooner had embryonic stem cell research had been fully funded by our federal government. For many people like me, valuable time was lost, perhaps years shaved off our lives. Is that is the true measure of vindication, coming at the expanse of much unnecessary suffering and dying?

And while were at it, let's talk about faith. As a Catholic, I challenge strident neo-orthodox Catholics and evangelicals such as Gerson on their premise that embryonic stem cell research is not consistent with Christian teaching. My Jesus is a Jew. All four Jewish denominations support embryonic stem cell research and point to Biblical imperatives to do so. They cite the importance of saving a life in being, as opposed to a less-than-fourteen day embryo; something not yet a human individual. As a Catholic I believe that there is a higher presumption that Jesus, as a Jew, would be more likely to support embryonic research than oppose it. And as a Christian I am far from alone in reaching such a conclusion. That is also the position of the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church, USA, among others.

But Gerson, like his cohorts on the Religious Right who oppose embryonic stem cell research, skews the discussion. He begins with the premise that an ensouled human individual is present from the moment of conception. Invoking a pejorative usage of utilitarianism to deride the efforts of those seeking to use embryonic stem cell research to cure disease, he states:

Standing in opposition to utilitarianism is a different philosophy -- that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. This belief in human dignity has theological roots for some -- but it is no less reasonable than the alternatives.

Continuing, he goes on to claim:

The human subject, in the case of embryonic research, is unrecognizable. But it is genetically distinct from other lives and undeniably human -- a human at its earliest stage of development. It is not a superstition of the Dark Ages to believe that it should be valued, instead of discarded like cracked pottery.

But as observed earlier, not all religious folks agree with this assessment--one that has its basis in natural law principles rather than in Scripture. As historian Garry Wills, recently noted:

...Saint Augustine in the fifth century would have given some guidance, since his knowledge of both Jewish and Christian Scripture was encyclopedic. Yet he says, "I have not been able to discover in the accepted books of Scripture anything at all certain about the origin of the soul."

Why do Gerson and his evangelical allies act --in poisonous factious form--seek to impose their highly subjective views on this subject on the aggregate majority of Americans? Poll after poll demonstrates that as a people--including the clear majority of my fellow Catholics--want embryonic stem cell research to proceed with federal funding and oversight.

The answer is not that difficult to ascertain. Gerson, like many evangelicals--Protestant or Catholic--view faith as authoritarian and recognize no place for reason, dissent, or alternative interpretations of faith. Instead, they replace the search for what God may want us to do with a certitude that sometimes borders on arrogance. So much so that they will not hesitate to impose such dogma on followers of other faiths or upon those who choose not to believe at all.

To me, this episode demonstrates the need for us to further strengthen the concept of the separation of church and state against the substitution of dogma for science and sound public policy. One reader commented that President Bush's obstinacy in opposing embryonic stem cell research, was not based upon science but his own subjective faith. And judging by poll after poll, it was a belief more in line with the hierarchy of certain faiths (including mine) than of their congregants. This begs the question, why does he put the interests of the former over those of the American people?

A "vindication for President Bush?" I hardly think so.

A note to the column's readers: the promised review of Garry Wills' recent book Head and Heart: American Christianities will appear next week.

There still exists the problem of tumor growth in this new process. Hypocritically, when this was the issue with embryonic stem cell research evangelical opponents would raise this point as one of the first reasons why embryonic stem cell research was not feasible. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, the tumor issue is now seen as a minor glitch.

If that doesn't tell you that the Religious Right plays fast and loose with the facts, nothing will.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 24, 2007 at 03:23:44 PM EST

I had heard about the problems with retroviruses and tumors. This rather limits the practical applications of converting nonembryonic stem cells.


by khughes1963 on Sat Nov 24, 2007 at 07:26:53 PM EST

If find it bitter that Gerson and conservative political cartoonist Chip Bok are spinning this as a victory for Bush. Politically, that may be, but such a "victory" came at the expense of dashed hopes and needless  prolonged suffering.

I think that this procedure will probably work and in fact I truly hope it does. But if the reprogrammed cell process is actually the better way we would have reached it a lot quicker without Bush's impossible restrictions. Clinton had us on the road for quicker breakthroughs before this small-minded man and his strident allies started meddling with science. This will be good news for others but this idealogically-based delay stole hope for a lot of people, probably me included.

Vindication? Vindictiveness is a much better description.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 24, 2007 at 09:35:11 PM EST

No matter how it goes, Gerson was bound to spin it for Bush. Unfortunately, they don't seem to care how many real people get hurt in the process. It's rather scary, but they seem to have adopted many of the tactics that the now-defunct Soviet Union adopted during its existence.

by khughes1963 on Sun Nov 25, 2007 at 09:15:29 AM EST

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