Embryonic stem cell (ESC) research presents the pro-life movement and the Church in particular with a difficult PR problem. It is, simply states, this: the pro-life movement cannot support ESC research so long as it continues to require the destruction of human life, but on the other hand needs to not be painted as “anti-science” in the effort to do so. This is quite a formidable task, but it also presents an opportunity for the Church to address the entire issue of morality, ethics, and scientific research.
Unfortunately, ESC research is so often referred to as scientific that by-and-large, the public has bought into this notion. For that matter, the same might be said of two related issues, cloning and reproductive therapy (as in, fertility clinics). To be sure, we can certainly gain some amount of knowledge by performing research in all three of these areas, but some knowledge comes at a heavy price, and not all research may be rightly thought of as “scientific.”
The simple act of calling a thing science does not make it so. This statement is not in any way challenged by the scientific community, and has resulted in debates of the years as to whether or not certain things are “legitimate science.” A prominent example which comes to mind is the debate over Intelligent Design (ID), whose proponents insist it is science and whose antagonists insist that it is not; the same is also true about its rival theory, e.g. evolution. The argument to that particular debate surrounds the methods and claims made by ID proponents and whether or not they present a verifiable hypothesis, but the case here is clear: not everyone in (and in fact, not even a majority of) the scientific community considers ID to be science, let alone “good” (or “sound”) science.
Another, perhaps more relevant, example may be found in the research conducted on the unwilling victims of the Nazi concentrations camps. To be sure, much knowledge in a variety of disciplines was gained from these experiments, but that knowledge fails to present a justification for conducting them in the first place; there are few people today who think that it is morally licit to duplicate these experiments at the cost of the lives and health of the people on whom they are performed, regardless of the knowledge gained.
Unfortunately, “few” is a far cry from “none.” There does exist a small group of people who embrace what the late Pope John Paul the Great referred to as the “scientistic” attitude, as opposed to the scientific attitude. Briefly put, those who embrace scientism believe that anything which is technically possible ought to be scientifically permissible. To them, science should be completely unlimited by mere ethical considerations and unbound from morality; by them would the horrors of such thinking be unleashed upon an unsuspecting humanity. In Nazi Germany, these people knew that the Jews on which they were experimenting were humans, people, and also knew that these experiments were causing great harm their “subjects.” Still, they continued with their experiments just the same, in the name of science, or of progress, or perhaps of the Fuehrer.
Today, those who embrace the scientistic attitude select the unborn as their “subjects,” those weakest members of humanity who are unable to speak for themselves, knowing full well that they are sometimes creating and always destroying a human life to perform their experiments. Those who fully embrace scientism justify their actions by claiming that the knowledge gained easily balances any moral qualms that people may have about their methods: essentially arguing that the ends justify the means.
Alternatively, they may simply argue, as a much more sizeable part of the population does, that any moral qualms against such research are unfounded to begin with—that there is nothing immoral with performing their research, that their subjects aren’t really human in the first place. This latter group does not embrace the scientistic attitude to the full extent of the former group, but they are nonetheless complicit with it, acting at the least as enablers and at the worst as accomplices to those who know full well the extent of the damage done by embracing scientism, with its disregard for the wellbeing and lives of its victims. It is no mere irony that the rhetorical claims against the humanity of the unborn mirror those claims made by the Nazis against the humanity of the Jews.
It is here that the Church again enters the picture. Pope Bennedict XVI, his predecessor Pope John Paul the Great, and a long line of Church leaders before them have taught the same truth over the millennia: that faith and reason are interdependent upon each other, and that each may inform or guide the other. Implicit in this is that a truly scientific worldview must consider itself to be bound by morality and that science must submit to ethics, even if it means progress will be slower in coming. One of the few ethics which continues to be followed by-and-large within the scientific community is that research ought not take technical shortcuts; why then should it be permitted to take moral shortcuts either?
If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:
The Sanitary, Sterilized Life
Three Sunrises (Poem)
Professor Walzeburn (Poem)
Science and the Death of Wonder
G.K. Chesterton on Ceremony and Science
The Idiocy of Modern Man