The Obama decision on embryonic stem cell research, issued on Monday, came in his seventh week in office, a stark contrast to his predecessor, who took almost seven months to reach his on the same issue. Of course, Mr. Bush faced the issue as one of first impression, while Mr. Obama had the benefit of his predecessor’s judgment to guide him, in this case to a different conclusion.
Presidential styles and approaches to the job aside, the Obama decision is, much as the Bush decision before him was, abundantly controversial, if for no other reason than because the religious fundamentalists in the country insist on making it so. From their perspective, the debate centers on the existence of the human soul. Sometimes this point isn’t mentioned (almost as if the fundamentalists don’t want to admit their argument’s intellectual vacuity when faith is included in the discussion), but it should be emphasized to provide a clear understanding of what Mr. Obama’s decision really represents.
The definition of the “soul” will vary from religion to religion, but for purposes of the present debate, let’s use the generally accepted Catholic and majority Christian view that it is an identifiable spiritual existence that attaches to a fertilized egg and then exists for eternity. It’s an interesting concept, certainly, one that has been the cause of untold numbers of literary classics, Dante’s trilogy, “The Divine Comedy” (“Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso”), coming immediately to mind.
But is it a concept that justifies the denial of scientific research when that research may provide cures for some of life’s most horrific maladies (spinal paralysis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, perhaps even chronic heart disease)?
The answer to that question must surely depend, in part at least, on the degree of certainty that the research can yield these positive results juxtaposed against the likelihood that conducting research on embryonic stem cells actually results in the destruction of a “soul.” (I will not delve into the question of whether the research results in the destruction of existent human life, since that point is really a just a makeweight in the debate: no one credibly argues that a zygote consisting of eight tiny cells is actually a sentient human being.)
So, here, with apologies to all who may be offended by my admittedly unsophisticated depiction, is the way the religious view works:
· God as creator of all, has created a soul for every human body;
· The soul attaches itself to the fertilized egg at the instant of conception;
· It is then effectively “born” to the eternal existence it will thereafter have;
· While the human body to which it is attached lives in the here and now, it will remain attached to that body;
· It will reap the benefits and bear the burdens of that human body’s actions (its degree of sinfulness in life);
· On the death of that body it will be consigned to its eternal existence either in Heaven or Hell, unless, as apparently is often the case, it is required, because of the sins of that human body, to spend some time in a nether place called Purgatory, or, because the human body died (or never came into existence) before any “record” could attach to it, in a place called Limbo, which isn’t as bad as Purgatory, but isn’t as blessed a final home as Heaven either.
I know it sounds complicated. Dante, for those wanting more intimate details, has it all laid out very nicely in the aforementioned literary work.
In any event, let’s consider what the opponents of embryonic stem cell research require intellectually in order for their argument to prevail in this debate.
1. That a particular kind of God* exists (one who intentionally created human beings and arranged for them to have something we call a soul).
*The alternatives for this assumption are almost too many to list, but they certainly include these possibilities:
a. That no such God exists
b. That such a God does exist, but that He/It did not have any particular view of humans in mind (rather, as seems more likely from scientific evidence, that He/It merely created a universe out of which humans developed).
c. That a God exists, but not one that created anything (more like the pantheistic view of God in everything).
2. That the “soul” described above actually does exist.
3. That the “soul” does not come into existence until the moment of conception (the fertilized egg idea).
4. That the “soul” is never destroyed once formed, but may end up in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory or Limbo, depending on when the physical body to which it is attached ceases to “live.”
5. That the places we call Heaven, Hell, Purgatory or Limbo do actually exist.
Surely any rational debate must acknowledge that all five of these points (along with the alternatives as to the first) are nothing more than imponderables, completely devoid of any basis of proof and resting entirely on, for want of a more charitable word, faith.
To be specific, none of the five points bear any resemblance to anything that any human being has ever witnessed in the here and now.
All of it, belief in God (and in a particular type of God), belief in a soul, belief as to when that soul comes into existence and how long it remains in existence, and belief in the various options for its dwelling place in an “afterlife,” are all completely unknowable by anyone who professes fervently to believe in any of it.
On the other side of the debate is the scientific experimentation which human experience verifies is capable of finding remedies and discovering cures for the ailments that currently diminish the length and quality of life.
The bottom line is clear. Embryonic stem cell research should not be restricted on the basis of religious beliefs. Opponents, if they are intellectually honest, must acknowledge that faith alone cannot sustain their position.
Perhaps it can work wonders, but faith has yet to defeat the scourges of life’s bodily ailments. In that field, science reigns supreme (as surely God must have intended).