Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Was the Bush veto part of God’s work?

Does President Bush believe that when he issued the veto for federal funding of stem cell research – the only veto of his career -- that he was taking a moral stand against the taking of human life? Of course he does. He said as much. The notion that an embryo is the equivalent of a human being is a real stretch but taking the President’s statements and others he has made regarding his religious believes and it is clear he believes he is doing God’s work.

Fortunately, the limits on morality keep getting redefined by the self-appointed spokesmen for God. Christianity and science have clashed over the centuries over a number of issues and science usually wins in the long run. Thank God for that.

Deborah Blum writes in today’s New York Times about how the work to develop a vaccine for small pox – the equivalent to stem cell research in the 18th and 19th centuries -- was denounced at the time as having crossed the moral line and “usurped God’s power to decide the beginning and end of life.”
… Medical progress has stirred religious and moral objections
throughout history — objections that were overcome as the benefits of medical
advances became overwhelmingly obvious. In the 11th century, European church
leaders warned monks that treating illness with medicine showed such a lack of
faith in God that it violated holy orders. When 19th-century doctors began using
chloroform to alleviate the pain of childbirth, the Scottish Calvinist church
declared it a “Satanic invention” intended to frustrate the Lord’s design.


An illuminating case study is the late 18th-century controversy
over inoculation against smallpox. Condemned by clerics as both immoral and
blasphemous, smallpox inoculation offers some surprising parallels to our
current impasse over research using embryonic stem cells.
The word “smallpox” once implied all the horror of a murderous infection against which people had little remedy. A 19th-century historian called it “the most terrible of all the ministers of death.”


Smallpox’s legacy of misery obsessed the English doctor Edward
Jenner. Born in 1749, Jenner spent years hunting for ways to conquer, or at
least prevent, the dread disease. He gathered anecdotal evidence from patients
and strangers, including milkmaids, who appeared protected from smallpox by
their exposure to a related, but milder, infection called cowpox. He also
studied the folk medicine practice of inoculation, in which pus from smallpox
pustule was rubbed into an opening scratched in the skin of an uninfected
person.


Other doctors were also exploring the idea of inoculation, but
Jenner went further, conducting experiments in the mid-1790’s. He designed a
procedure using fluid from cowpox lesions to inoculate against smallpox. His
approach was untested, but Jenner believed it offered the potential to become
“essentially beneficial to mankind.”


The religious authorities of Jenner’s day viewed smallpox
inoculation as an affront to God and man. A widely published British sermon was
titled “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation.” American clergy
warned that inoculation usurped God’s power to decide the beginning and end of
life. Only hypocrites would undergo the procedure and still pray to God, one
theologian declared.


… Clerics denounced him as a tool of the devil. Newspapers
ridiculed him as “a presumptuous man” overselling his results; one cartoonist
portrayed him as a country bumpkin surrounded by patients sprouting cow parts.


Even some of his medical colleagues questioned whether he might
have gone too far. In retrospect, one can easily imagine Jenner’s brilliant idea
sinking under the combined weight of moral antipathy and scientific
disdain.


Instead, the doctor persevered and triumphed. Not by hyping the
potential of his ideas, as some stem cell supporters occasionally have done, but
by doggedly gathering more evidence based on more inoculations. Fueled by his
success, the practice spread, and smallpox rates plummeted. In time, the
life-saving merits of inoculation eventually overwhelmed all doubt; the
evidence, Jenner wrote, became “too manifest to admit of
controversy.”

See my previous post on stem cell research here.

1 comment:

Dave Pederson, Ph.D. said...

Friend Sysiphus,

Your rant-quote about Christianity being anti-science fails the fact-test miserably. The most noteworthy of the evangelicals in the 1700s, Jonathan Edwards, died when he – based on Christian humanitarian convictions - willingly submitted to early clinical trials of the Small Pox inoculation. That’s hardly anti-science nor judgmental toward those contracting the horrible disease. You ask, why would he risk his life at the high-point of his career as the newly elected president of Princeton University? Because – in general – true Christians care about others more than non-Christians care about others. And when his convictions about the usefulness of the scientific method were coupled with his compassion and trust in the Sovereign God, he had the courage to take a risk that most non-Christians (and pseudo-Christians for that matter) would not.

Another example of a progressive scientific Christian outlook is a quote from a biography of the Rev. Cotton Mather. “On June 26th 1721, after much research by Cotton Mather, the first inoculation in American history was completed by Dr. Zabdiel Boylston at Boston. Dr. Boylston made a small wound in three patients, and the pus of active smallpox was smeared into these wounds. The result was that the people deliberately infected by the smallpox received a mild case of the deadly disease, and thereafter had complete immunity to it. The three subjects were an adult male slave named Jack, a male two-year old slave named Jackey, and Dr. Boylston's six-year old son. This event can be considered analogous to what is known today as a clinical trial.” Yikes! I don’t like the idea of submitting slaves to the trial. But he is redeemed by the fact that he gave his son for the good of humankind. Hmmm…maybe a bit of biblical typology there.

I agree that Christians have vigorously debated the propriety of scientific activity throughout history. But let’s give more credit to the Christians than the non-Christians when it comes to things helpful to humanity. After all, the scales still tip in the Christians favor when you look at who has done the most good in education, health, and societal freedom throughout global history. And even if you consider who has made the biggest messes in history and then cleaned them up…Christians still are marginally better. You can accuse us of playing the “our God is bigger than your God game.” But hey, if our God is, then it will show. And it does.