Ethical Concerns And Church-State Violations

I was thinking about saying something about this Richard Cohen column while I was ranting at Jon Chait about religion and democracy, but decided to let it slide. In the aftermath of the stem-cell news, though, it seems worth bringing up again. Cohen writes:

Back before Bush, it was considered narrow-minded and, worst of all, elitist, to judge a person by the intensity of his religious convictions. Belief was not supposed to matter, and so it was impermissible to conclude anything about a person even if he thought Darwin was wrong or, more recently, that homosexuals chose their sexual orientation, presumably just to irritate the Christian right. Religion was irrelevant. Everyone said so -- and I agreed.

Bush changed that. He infused government with religion, everything from ineffective programs that promote sexual abstinence to an adamant refusal to authorize federal spending for most embryonic stem-cell research. The administration even erected barriers to the marketing of the Plan B morning-after pill. All these measures ran up against obstacles that were essentially religious, not strictly scientific, in nature.

Richard Cohen, meet James A. Thomson:

Dr. Thomson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 plucked stem cells from human embryos for the first time, destroying the embryos in the process and touching off a divisive national debate.

And on Tuesday, his laboratory was one of two that reported a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without ever using a human embryo.

The fact is, Dr. Thomson said in an interview, he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the outset, even though he knew that such research offered insights into human development and the potential for powerful new treatments for disease.

If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”

He decided in the end to go ahead, reasoning that the work was important and that he was using embryos from fertility clinics that would have been destroyed otherwise. The couples whose sperm and eggs were used to create the embryos had said they no longer wanted them. Nonetheless, Dr. Thomson said, announcing that he had obtained human embryonic stem cells was “scary,” adding, “It was not known how it would be received.”

Hmmm. So he found the work ethically troubling, but decided to go ahead, on the justification that the embryos he would use were slated for destruction anyway. This is, of course, distinct from George W. Bush's more conservative position, which was that we should provide federal funds only for research on stem cells from embryos that had already been killed - albeit while making no attempt, one might add, to impede private research like Dr. Thomson's. But just how distinct are they, and what's the nature of the distinction? Well, that's a good question ... and hey, maybe Richard Cohen can answer it. He seems pretty sure of himself, after all. So my challenge to Cohen is this: Please explain why the Bush position is so distinct from Dr. Thomson's as to make the latter a responsible scientist, and the former a dangerously-religious zealot who elevated faith over "science," and permanently effaced the bright line between church and state. I'll give you, say, nine hundred words or so to do so.

Meanwhile, I'd saying something snide about this passage ...

If anything, Romney is the anti-Huckabee. There is not the slightest hint that his religion has constrained his politics in any way. You name the issue and he's been for it and against it -- gun control, abortion, gay rights. Call this what you may, it is proof that Romney is not enslaved by any dogma. His religion, to which he is committed, is distinctly his business and would not, as far I can tell, have any bearing on his presidency.

... but it would be tough to top Larison.