Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Response to Mr. Massa -- It's the Embryonic Part, Eric

Recently, my friend (though he may deny that descriptor of himself, I don’t) and former college roommate, who is running for Congress in the 29th District of New York, issued a press release about his stance on Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) to which I am compelled to respond. I understand Mr. Massa’s zeal for pursuing medical solutions and being “pro-cure” (as he calls himself). As a cancer survivor, Mr. Massa’s sensitivity to these issues is perfectly understandable. I share them. So, I should preface my remarks by saying that I, and many like me, do not in any way oppose stem cell research – as long as it does not entail the destruction of human embryos.

Mr. Massa said that his opponents hold “an extreme, politically convenient belief system that favors frozen, microscopic cells over living human beings. How pro-life is that?” I believe this statement is loaded with inaccuracies and deserves a reasoned response:

1) Labeling those who disagree with his position “extremist” is not only ad hominem, it completely avoids responding to the actual arguments offered by ESCR opponents. If Mr. Massa considers an opposing position “extremist” just because someone else holds it, his position could be labeled in a like manner. It is the sign of the weakness of his own argument that Mr. Massa, and others like him, refuses to actually respond to the intellectual position of his opponents.

If Mr. Massa’s position rests on the assumption that minority-equals-extremist I would point out that polls which allow respondents to differentiate between their approval of stem cell research and research which requires the destruction of human embryos, the percentage who favor stem cell research quickly falls. In that case, polling shows that opposition to ESCR is as high as 70%.

Though these statistics are interesting, they are also irrelevant to the argument in question. The moral status of a position is not dependent on its popularity. Opposition to slavery wasn’t very popular in the South in the mid-nineteenth century, just as support for the Civil Rights Movement was lacking (mostly among southern Democrats) in the mid-twentieth century. Does that mean that slavery and racism were morally defensible?

Likewise, the claim that opponents of ESCR are motivated only by “political convenience,” makes absolutely no sense. If a majority of Americans agree with Mr. Massa’s position as he claims, what is the political benefit of voting with the “extreme” minority?

2) The position of the Catholic Church regarding ESCR is as follows:
The Catholic Church is against stem-cell research because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Pope John Paul II says embryonic stem-cell research is related to abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on innocent life.”

“The pope rearticulated his position on the use of embryos by saying: "Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to be destroyed in the process.” (Both quotes from The Catholic Digest, emphases mine)

As a Catholic himself, it would be interesting to know how Mr. Massa reconciles the teachings of his own church with the political position he holds regarding ESCR.

3) The distinction between “frozen, microscopic cells” and a “living human being” is an arbitrary one. For one thing, the thermodynamic state of an entity does not change its ontological status. The decision of an outside agent to freeze a human embryo, does not suddenly render that embryo non-human. Mr. Massa’s distinction is a false one. Every one of those embryos contains the potential (even though it is artificially mitigated by those who froze them) to develop into a fully formed human being.

Secondly, Mr. Massa (like many who share his view) seems to equate “frozen, microscopic cells” with an unborn human embryo. He then contrasts that entity with a “living human being,” claiming that we “extremists” value the former over that latter. This assertion shows that Mr. Massa grossly misunderstands the position of those who oppose ESCR.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: The problem opponents have with ESCR is precisely that we place the exact same value on the unborn human embryo as we do on what Massa calls a “living human being.” This is because we believe that the embryo is a living human being. To so flippantly shrug off that position shows at least an alarming lack of tact, at best a gross ignorance of the facts of the issue. An embryo is not a thing. It is a stage in the development of a thing.

What is that thing, Mr. Massa? If an embryo is not a human being, what is it?

If it is a human being, how do you justify its destruction for any reason?

4) There is little (if any) opposition to stem cell research. It is the creation and use of human embryos that is morally objectionable, not stem cell research in general. Along those lines, alternate forms of stem cell research, which do not raise moral objections, show more promise. As Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute points out in his August 2, 2006 blog entry:

First, embryonic stem cells, though allegedly more flexible than their adult counterparts, are hard to control once implanted. They sometimes form tumors instead of usable tissue.

Second, the cloning procedures needed to produce embryos for research are hugely expensive. As Wesley J. Smith points out, "The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) claims it could take about 100 human eggs per patient—at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 apiece—just to derive one cloned embryonic-stem-cell line for use in regenerative therapy." If true, it would be next to impossible to secure the billions of human eggs needed for widespread therapeutic cloning. And even if the biotechnology could be developed, "it would either be available only to the super rich or so costly that it would have to be stringently rationed."

Third, non-controversial adult stem cells are currently treating 65 known diseases while their embryonic counterparts are treating none, leading some scientists to wonder if embryo cells have any therapeutic value whatsoever.

Fourth, prospective investors have so far failed to pony up the cash for research which, in their view, appears highly speculative and might not cure anyone for years to come.

Finally, there's at least some research (summarized here by the USCCB) which indicates that cloning technology might never yield substantial treatments unless cloned humans are developed well past the embryonic stage.
The promises of ESCR are highly questionable. It is irresponsible to offer false hope and mislead people into thinking otherwise. Mr. Massa accuses his opponents on this issue of taking their stance for “political convenience,” but his exaggerated promises are far crueler and more politically expedient than anything his opponents are saying.

So, Mr. Massa, you asked, “How pro-life is that?” Let me respond directly by saying, “As pro-life as it gets.”

How would you respond to the arguments Mr. Massa? I look forward to finding out.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Abortion Stops A Thinking Mind

Abortion is an issue that forces us into intellectual corners. It is a topic that challenges the task of thinking clearly not only about a moral dilemma, but about how we view the origin and nature of our very humanity. It is hard to imagine a more perfect example of this than that which was offered in USA Today recently.

You know you are in for an unbiased, objective opinion when, asking the question “Where does God stand on abortion,” the author starts out by addressing:
"the constitutionality of a rare procedure opponents call 'partial-birth' abortion."
The inclusion of “rare” in the description of partial-birth abortion is a common tactic used to minimize any negativity one may hold toward the subject so as to avoid having to defend it. It harkens back to former President Clinton’s hope that we could succeed at making abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” But it defies logic that the infrequency of an act is sufficient to justify its moral status.

“Mr. Oswald, is it true that you are known to shoot American presidents with high-powered rifles from book depositories in Dallas, Texas?”

“Rarely, sir.”

“Very well, case dismissed.”

Notice also that it is not the morality of the “procedure” that is in question, but its constitutionality. The fact that the Supreme Court and/or legislative statutes may allow abortion to continue is the standard by which the author (an Episcopal pastor, Tom Ehrich) judges where God stands. This is an interesting position that completely bypasses the challenges most opponents of the “rare procedure” put forth. It also tells us precisely nothing about God’s stance.

For that, we would need to include what many Christian ministers, asked where God stands on a given subject, would call an exegetical analysis of Scripture. Ehrich’s description of partial-birth abortion (and the sixteen weasel-worded paragraphs that follow), makes no such effort. Because doing so would require actual mental exertion on his part, and because the conclusion he reached might be deemed “judgmental,” Ehrich finds it more instructive to simply delve into the multi-headed hydra of human opinion on the subject.

Here we find Scriptural tidbits taken completely out of context in order to justify any view one happens to hold on the subject. Ehrich (did I mention that he is an Episcopal pastor?) chastises anyone who dares to draw actual conclusions on the subject, especially those who think they
"can make an absolute case for or against abortion"
Those who have the audacity to attempt to do so are relegated to the
"extreme positions that command the microphones and drown out the others"
when we would all be better served by a
"… search for a common sense middle to assert itself against both extremes"
How would one define a “common sense middle” on abortion? Honestly, what is the middle ground between allowing the destruction of an innocent human life, and not allowing the destruction of innocent human life? These two choices are mutually exclusive. Until someone can show that the entity being destroyed in an abortion is not a human being, there is no middle ground. Saying that there is, no matter how nicely or non-judgmentally one says it, does not make it so.

The absence of logical argumentation reaches its peak in the sidebar to the piece, offered by Daniel Maguire, which treats us to what “Religions say …” about abortion. For example:

Roman Catholics: The popes have taught that abortion is always forbidden, and the church hierarchy has held to a doctrine that strongly opposes it. Even so, grounds for permitting abortion exist … there is no one Catholic view.

Protestants: … are largely open to a moral choice on abortion … some abortion rights are accepted within denominations

Jews: Abortion is an option for Jewish women from the earliest sources of the Bible and Mishnaic commentary

In each of these cases, actual Scriptural support for the pro-abortion position is glaringly absent. Instead, we are treated once again to the opinions of people who claim to adhere to a given religion. What their Holy Scripture (which, in this case, all three share in the Old Testament) happens to say is apparently irrelevant. Where there is some orthodox view offered, as in the case of the Catholics, for whom abortion is “always forbidden,” we can conveniently ignore that position anyway. Instead of submitting to the teachings of the church, we are free to justify any action based on the opinion of some and then claim there is “no one Catholic view,” even if, three sentences earlier, we spelled out what that view actually is.

Islam: highly prizes fertility [but] even so, Islam believes that we are obligated by God not to overpopulate … after 120 days, abortion is permissible only [in specific instances]

If it is in fact true that Islam favors fertility but not overpopulation, how do either of those positions in any way impact the question of whether or not abortion is morally justifiable? Additionally, the arbitrary nature of this defense is laughable. Why not 119 days … or 121? The inanity goes on …

Buddhism’s “middle way” attempts to reconcile its prohibition against “willingly taking the life of a living thing” with its conflicting allowance for cases where there is no “greed, hate or delusion.” But these two are logically incompatible. Does it follow that one who is not greedy, hateful or delusional in her allowance for abortion may then take the life of a living thing? Is doing such a thing prohibited or not? Beside that, the author fails to note that Buddhism regards human suffering as an illusion that it aims to have us escape. In that case, one needs no justification for “willingly taking the life of a living thing.” Death is irrelevant at best, and unreal in fact … if there are facts at all.

We are told that, since the legal approval of abortion in India in 1971, “almost no objections [have been raised] from Hindu religious authorities” regarding abortion. Yet in the same paragraph the author notes that Hinduism sports a “moral law that is dynamic and changing.” On what basis would a Hindu religious leader, awash in a Hindu sea of gods and shifting moral relativism, justify his objection? Indeed, the Hindu worldview would never generate any such thought. There is no reason to object to the karma another person brings upon himself.

Finally, the North American native religions avoid moral reality by invoking the feminist claim that the topic of abortion is a woman’s issue, not a man’s. That is of course, unless you happen to be a male fetus. Along the same lines, Taoism and Confucianism are said to value “sex and sexual pleasure” while promoting moderation as a “virtue in reproduction” and thereby allowing “abortion as a backup if needed.” How quaint. It becomes virtuous to destroy another human being so as to promote the higher value you place in sexual pleasure. What a deal! If I were to go about making up a religion that allowed me to justify anything and everything I felt like doing, I can’t imagine coming up with a more self-serving one than that.

And that is what each of these justifications for abortion have in common – humanity’s proclivity for self-service. When it comes to the abortion debate, we are forced to question the nature of humanity -- when life begins and how that life is constituted. If Christian theism is true, we are made in the image of God and, against all our protestations, denials, and attempts to avoid the accountability we have before Him -- we know it.

At the core of our being, in our deepest intuitions, we know that the taking of innocent human life is wrong. Because the stakes are so high, we will go to great lengths to explain it away. Making a vacuous declaration that a “fetus” is not alive, or that it is not human; ignoring basic logic in our argumentation; blatantly contradicting ourselves and our basic human intuitions -- each of these is a small price to pay for the right to the unfettered human autonomy we crave.

We create God in our own image to justify behavior that we could never otherwise condone. Doing so forces us to manufacture arguments that rational, logical persons would never otherwise try to pass off as being legitimate. Clear thinking goes out the window. Everyone’s opinion is valid. Non-judgmentalism rules the day.

And the slaughter continues … rationalized by some self-described definition of where "god" stands on the issue ... and justified by the most revered of all gods -- the one we see in the bathroom mirror.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Thinking Outside the Circle

Yesterday's USA Today ran an article about the debate concerning the identification and reclassification of several bodies orbiting our solar system. Some of these, smaller than our own Moon, have previously been labeled as asteroids or planetoids. But, with a recent redefinition of what it means to be a planet, some of these may soon achieve an asteroidal promotion to planet status (while poor Pluto risks being demoted). The new definition includes any object:

*that orbits a star
*that has been pulled into a ball shape by its own gravity
*and that is not a satellite of another planet
While this is an interesting scientific debate for astronomers, what caught my eye was the philosophical assumptions the article exposed.

Though they seem pretty straightforward to me, one astronomer expressed "shock" at the newly proposed definitions of a planet. Why would this be so controversial?

Hugh Ross (among others) has many times identified the lack of cross-disciplinary information sharing that goes on within the scientific community as a whole. It is because of this that experts in one field of science may be completely unaware of discoveries that are going on in other fields. Scientists concentrating all their efforts in their own area of expertise can develop tunnel vision and thereby tacitly reinforce paradigmatic biases of which they are completely unaware, while at the same time shielding themselves from cross-disciplinary data that may have implications in their own field of knowledge. The same goes within scientific communities that sometimes seem to be unaware that they are, in essence saying, "We never thought about it that way, so it can't be that way." Groupthink limits data interpretation by demanding that results remain within preset limits.

Hard-core Darwinist biologists are guilty of this when it comes to the theories being proposed by the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. The rigor of ID's mathematical and information theory critique of materialist neo-Darwinism is discarded without analysis simply because its implications are unacceptable to Darwinism's naturalistic presuppositions.

Perhaps the Darwinist powers-that-be should heed the advice of seventh grade science teacher Michael Smith of Wilmington, Delaware, who, commenting on the planet controversy, admitted that "We probably don't do a good enough job as teachers to teach science as something that changes ... It's a fantastic opportunity to talk about all the new discoveries."

Amen, Michael.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Common Dehumanator

Sixteen-year old Abraham Cherrix has been ordered by a judge – against the wishes of both he and his parents – to undergo chemotherapy to treat his cancer. Public outrage toward the judge’s decision, at least as it is being reported in the mainstream press, is muted. At first glance, the fact that Abraham is being explicitly told what he can do with, and to, his body, seems to stand in sharp contrast to the pro-abortionist creed that “no one should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body.” Isn’t this just a little inconsistent?

One might assume that the appearance of hypocrisy stems from the fact that Abraham is a minor who lacks the wisdom to make a rational, informed decision about a fate that is so agonizingly personal. That is, unless you have heard Abraham speak. He is an articulate, well-informed young man who has thoroughly researched his options and has chosen to pursue a less nauseating, natural cure for his disease. Beside that, Abraham’s parents have agreed to support his decision and have publicly defended it in repeated interviews.

No, the fact is that there really isn’t any inconsistency at all. Both views share a common denominator – a belief in the supremacy of science and its ability to answer all our questions and overcome all our problems. Both views are the logical products of an anti-religious scientism that pervades our culture. Abraham, like the pro-life proponents who the media also disdain, is always portrayed as a fundamentalist Christian zealot who would be happy to live in a theocracy of his own making. Because religion has been cast as a purely personal preference with no legitimate voice in the marketplace of ideas, the practice of de-legitimizing religious ideas has become accepted without much objection -- even from religious believers.

If you want to see this paradigm in action, just read this story about the debate over the so-called "morning after" pill.
Scientists long ago concluded that the "morning-after pill," marketed as Plan B, is both effective and safe enough to be sold over the counter without restriction. Seventy leading medical and public health groups have told the agency so for years. The pill lowers the risk of pregnancy by nearly 90% when taken within 72 hours of sex and could cut in half the nation's 3 million unintended pregnancies each year ... But rather than follow the medical evidence, as it is mandated to do, FDA has catered to groups that believe, without convincing evidence, that Plan B promotes teen promiscuity and causes abortions.
Notice that invoking the conclusions of scientists is deemed sufficient reason to end all debate about the subject. Like Abraham Cherrix, whose doctors' opinions trump his personal convictions, science not only has the last word, it is allowed to define the terms of the debate. We see this same assumption at play in the debate about embryonic stem cell research.

Unfortunately this tendency to seek and accept science as the arbiter of our morality has been tacitly accepted by the religious community as well. As Francis Beckwith points out in his essay in Darwin's Nemesis, even "opponents of philosophical naturalism ... [sometimes] with the noblest of intentions, believe they are advancing the cause of fairness or 'balanced treatment' by offering policies that absorb the premises of scientific materialism without knowing it." (106) These are usually policies that "presuppose that religion or theology is not a branch of real knowledge." (114)

There are much smarter people than I who make a living disassembling scientism's philosophical weaknesses. But for the rest of us it is a simple task to turn the tables on those who demand we accept their scientific paradigm by forcing them to take a dose of their own medicine.

First, they claim that Abraham Cherrix will be better off by being forced to undergo chemotherapy. By what standard do Abraham's doctors or the judge determine what "better off" is? It would seem that declaring one outcome for Abraham as being more desirable than another is a value comparison -- just the kind of comparison a materialist claims is not valid. By strict materialist (Darwinist) standards, Abraham should not be treated at all. Having contracted a deadly disease, Cherrix would be more properly branded a target of natural selection who is meant for extinction. Though that is the logical endpoint of the naturalistic worldview, there are very few (but there are some!) who would accept such a conclusion.

Second, the non-reality of moral imperatives inherent in the naturalistic paradigm, denies any limit on human autonomy. Yet, the the doctors (of law and medicine) are denying Abraham Cherrix the autonomy their own worldview demands he should have.

The point is that the naturalist cannot live within his own worldview. He must either borrow objective morality, or suppress it to serve his own purposes. In either case, he dehumanizes himself or those on whom he seeks to impose his worldview against their will.

Science is not the enemy. The idolizing of science -- the acceptance of science as having the final say in matters like these while simultaneously denying the objective reality of moral judgements -- is the common denominator in a worldview that dehumanizes us all.