Culture At Large

Whatever happened to the stem cell debate?

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

Last month, biotechnology company Geron announced the suspension of their highly publicized human clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells. The news didn’t make much of a splash, even though this was the first FDA-approved clinical trial testing the potential of embryonic stem cells.

Much of the 2004 presidential campaign, and much of the political debate in the years before and after, was dominated by a fierce cultural battle over embryonic stem cell research. In 2009, President Obama, who had promised to base administrative decisions on “science rather than ideology,” expanded federal funding to almost all available embryonic stem cell lines, which remains current law. Like many “hot-button” political issues, the issue of embryonic stem cell research has been pushed aside as new issues take center stage.

But should current law become settled policy? The trajectory of the embryonic stem cell debate is like so many battles over the regulation of science and technology in the United States: technological advances stir excitement, opponents urge caution and the arguments that can best appeal to the pathos of the human experience and our innate cultural belief in the goodness of technology win the day. Meanwhile, as a nation, we have failed to develop a principled framework for regulating science and technology to ensure that these tools serve justice and the common good.

The very nature of our political system lends itself more towards reactionary legislating than proactive regulatory planning. But a thoughtful, Christian approach to the regulation of science and technology should include the following principles:

First, Christians should recognize the appropriate role of science and technology in the ongoing redemptive work of God’s kingdom. Science is a means of glorifying God as we both reflect His creative nature and explore the beauty and complexity of His created order. Science also provides humanity with tools for participating in His work of redemption and renewal, for achieving justice and for affirming the dignity of all humanity. Christians need not fear science or its conclusions and, because “all truth is God’s truth,” Christians should advocate an evidence-based approach to science policy.

Second, Christians should acknowledge the limitations of science and technology. Scientists and engineers are, after all, human. Data can be biased even at the point of acquisition. Data are always interpreted by researchers and used to develop models which only approximate reality. Even the most understood scientific principles and dogma are subject to revision. What is incontrovertible today will be seen as the ignorance of the past tomorrow.

Third, because the tools of science and technology can be used for both good and evil, it is appropriate for the state to regulate their use. From the industrial revolution to putting a man on the moon, Americans share a deep appreciation of the role of technology in propelling the country to greatness. But technological progress also makes the mass extermination of large numbers of people easier than ever and can exacerbate economic inequalities. The government has a vital role to play to ensure that science and technology affirm human dignity and serve the common good.

Fourth, our view of human dignity must be comprehensive - based not on our age, our race, our nationality or our economic contribution, but on our common nature as bearers of the very image of God. An appropriate use of science should never lead us to privilege an individual or a class of persons over another.

Finally, our view of human suffering must be grounded in the example of Christ Himself, who went to great lengths to alleviate pain, restore dignity and forestall death, but who became nothing, “becoming obedient unto death.” And we must never intentionally harm another human being to avert our own suffering.

When these principles are applied to the embryonic stem cell debate, clear policy prescriptions emerge. The federal government should not support research that harms or kills nascent human life - regardless of the potential human benefits.

But before we can expect our nation to adopt such a principled approach to the regulation of technology, Christians individually, and corporately in the context of the church, need to examine our own attitudes regarding the role of technology in our society. We need to acknowledge and repent of where we have participated in our nation’s idolatry of technology and where we have unfairly demonized scientists.

(Image of embryonic stem cells courtesy of Nissim Benvenisty/Wikimedia Commons.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Technology, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America