Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Friday, December 14, 2001

Bill Kristol et al. versus the modern world
I just couldn't leave it alone. Skip down, all five of you, if you want to read my cuts of the original argument, or anything else. So, now Mr. Kristol and his neocon buddies have determined that therapeutic cloning research is akin to global terrorism (Link below). Let's take a moment to examine his putative reasoning, and perhaps gain some enlightenment as to why this type of thinking is so very dangerous. First, let's ask a question; is Mr. Kristol a serious thinker, or is he merely weighing in on matters he has no clue about? Let's assume that he is, and he opposes cloning research for the same reason he opposes abortion, that human life is precious and that it begins at conception. Let?s further accept the notion that human life is precious (paging Peter Singer!), and get on to the serious question of the second notion. Leaving aside the difficult question of when conception occurs (fertilization, implantation, cell division, egg asymmetry?), we can spend some time dissecting this Sacred Chao (a shout out to the R.A.W. fans out there!). There is a giant white elephant standing in this room, one that threatens the very core of pro-life dogma, and is therefore feared and ignored. By the best research available, ~1/5 pregnancies is naturally terminated, either in miscarriage or stillbirth. Now, no one denies that a late miscarriage is painful and sad, and sometimes even life threatening for the pregnant woman. If it is late enough in the term, some families will even name and bury the miscarried fetus. However, the vast bulk of these occur in the first trimester, many even before the woman knows she is pregnant. About 2.3 million people die every year in the U.S. (1997 WHO statistic) from all causes, and about the same number are born (obviously, since the population of the planet is growing, the number born is greater than the number who die, but lets just use this as a baseline). In the U.S., then, based on the 20% figure above, there are ~550,000 miscarriages in the U.S. every year. Extrapolating to the world, and assuming that the rate is the same (it is almost certainly higher everywhere else!), every year ~11 million miscarriages occur!! This is certainly a low estimate, but perhaps valid for this discussion. Why, then, aren?t the pro-life people crushed with grief over this destruction of precious life?? Because that is not the battle they wish to fight! Of course, there might be a solution to this, but it would involve fetal development research, which they cannot accept, because that would involve destruction of the embryos. More to the point, the early term miscarriages might be good, because those embryos might be developing abnormally. Of course, we could fix that (theoretically) with genetic engineering techniques, but that would be monkeying with Mother Nature, playing God if you will. Doing such things is strictly forbidden by our nattering nabobs of neo-conservatism. So either life begins at conception, which is fraught with the problems above, or it is not, in which case the slippery slope intercedes, to the great detriment of the pro-life movement.
Another big issue here is the assertion of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Now, I have no problem with this, but then again, I am not a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Daoist, or an atheist (oh, wait, I am that last one!). By invoking this Authority at every turn, literally BILLIONS of people are left out of the debate. If morality is derived essentially from two books (Old and New), then a whole bunch of us are wasting our time. In any event, what does this have to do with science? Science is not a Judeo-Christian endeavor, even if many people who do it subscribe to those beliefs. Science is strictly agnostic, neither attempting to prove or disprove religious beliefs. Amazingly, scientists do manage to spend time thinking about the morality and ethics behind what they do, even if not resorting to argument from (Divine) authority. What do they decide? Well, many times we invoke a precautionary principle, not performing experiments that might be dangerous, or trying to come up with ways to determine whether there is danger. Other times we practice containment, making sure to keep experimentally created organisms separate from the natural world. And sometimes we rely on the basic principles of evolution and natural selection to work (are those in the Bible? Then I guess they must not be true, right?), and we predict that our work will not cause harm. In the end, we have faith not in a higher power, but in ourselves, that we do not wish to destroy humanity, or mate humans and pigs (!!!), but to better the human condition, and expand the collective knowledge of humanity for the betterment of all. Perhaps it is naïve to think that anyone could be convinced by such goals and ideals, but then again, maybe it is naïve to rail against scientific inquiry based on small-minded and narrow interpretations of ethics, as well.
The real question here is, why are we letting such sloppy thinkers frame the national debate? Are we so captive to abortion politics that we can?t get past the circular, outdated, and facile logic of pro-life dogma? The scientific community in the US is being led by the nose by anti-scientists such as Leon Kass, away from the fundamental enterprise they wish to be involved in. This is the great menace of the Bill Kristols of the world.