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William B. Hurlbut Science, Religion, and the Politics of Stem Cells IN JULY 2 0 0 5 , A M E R IC A ’S O N G O IN G DEBATE OVER EMBRYONIC STEM cell research reached a dram atic m om ent during a Senate subcommit­ tee hearing.* In a conference room crowded w ith television cam era crews, newspaper journalists, fellow legislators, and a panel of expert witnesses ranging from scientists to bioethicists, Senator Tom Harkin (D„ Iowa), in a long and impassioned statem ent, asserted there are no m oral issues here, just personal religious views parading as political principle (“Transcript Hearing,” 2005). In m aking this com m ent, Senator Harkin was joining a wider chorus of critics labeling President George W. Bush’s policy on stem cells a conflict betw een the objectivity of secular science and the cultural variability of traditional religion—with religion here relegated to the categoiy of partisan ideology. The policy under attack is the president’s August 9, 2001, execu­ tive order lim iting federal funding to already existing stem cell lines. At that tim e President Bush declared that during his adm inistration, no further em bryo-destructive research would be supported by the Am erican taxpayers. Now, however, as Congress threatens a legisla­ tive override of this policy—which the president, in turn, promises to veto—there is an ever more vocal outcry that this is not mere politics, but the im position of religious beliefs, a deeper m atter violating the established order of separation of church and state. A May 26, 2005, editorial in the New York Times declared: “His actions are based on strong religious beliefs on the part of some conser­ social research Vol 73 : No 3 : Fall 2006 819 vative Christians, and presumably the president himself. Such convic­ tions deserve respect, but it is wrong to impose them on this pluralistic nation” (“Stem Cell Theology,” 2005). From a broad social perspective, this difficult dispute over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) m ight be seen simply as democracy in action, the social process essential for progress into any new and unfam iliar technological terrain. Yet w hen one pauses to ponder exactly w hat is at issue and the nature of the controversy, it is clear that this conflict is driven by m ore fundam ental forces—forces that challenge us at the m ost basic level as a cooperative society. At the im m ediate political level, the issue is the federal funding of research that involves the destruction of early but incipient hum an life. That alone qualifies as a m atter of profound social and ethical signifi­ cance. But beneath this issue, the dispute involves the m ost basic assump­ tions concerning the foundation of the m oral principles on which our civilization is built: W hat is the source of our moral principles and how do we govern amid a plurality of perspectives? Indeed, recognizing the immensity of the issues and the depth of the division, we m ust acknowl­ edge we are at a crisis of science, religion, and politics. The recognition of this foundational conflict has become increas­ ingly clear in American culture. Most analysts agree that the results of the last presidential election reflect a widening divide w ithin American society over m atters of faith. It is also clear that w ith advances in our understanding and control of biology, our social division increasingly involves different basic assumptions concerning the source and signifi­ cance of the natural world—m ost specifically, the m eaning of hum an nature as grounded in natural hum an em bodiment, and the possibility of its degradation or destruction through technological manipulation. This conflict over the use of biotechnology to intervene in hum an life has reached its deepest point of disagreem ent over the issue of cloning to create hum an embryos for scientific experim entation. The historical background of this conflict reflects changes in both our basic religious values and scientific knowledge, and, m ost im portant, the way these relate to each other. The situation in the 820 social research United States is, in turn...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 819-834
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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