My colleague Phil Gaspar recently forwarded a collumn by Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics to me on the ongoing issues related to stem-cell research, attacking the recent breakthroughs in obtaining those cells without destroying embryos. An excerpt:
Lanza’s current research involves pulling cells known as blastomeres out of human embryos. He took a human embryo in a lab dish to the eight-cell stage of development and took off a single cell. Then he reported growing stem cells from that single cell. Lanza declared that “this removes the last rational reason for opposing” embryonic stem cell research.
But does producing stem cells from blastomeres give us a chance to reach consensus on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research? Hardly.
First, it is not at all certain that the cells grown from embryos at the eight-cell stage of development are exactly the same and just as potent as those taken from a two-day old embryo. If not, they won’t be as useful to medical researchers.
Second, in pulling off a cell this early in embryonic development, some critics of research on embryos are going to oppose Lanza’s idea either because you are putting an embryo at risk or because it is still possible that twinning could have occurred and so each of the blastomere cells need to be treated as potential people and thus not destroyed.
Third, who exactly is going to offer up their embryos for this sort of a biopsy? Not couples who just are trying to have babies since they won’t want anyone lopping cells off their embryos no matter how reassuring the scientists who want them might be that it is safe to do. And if the blastomeres come from embryos being tested for diseases as is done in some clinics — a process known as preimplantation diagnosis — then who is going to want to grow stem cell lines from genetically diseased source cells?
Finally, and most importantly, in order to get at blastomeres you still need to create embryos at infertility clinics. When you do that, you will always wind up with more embryos than you need because we still aren't that good at producing them in the lab. This means there will always be surplus embryos, which will either be frozen or destroyed.
Ultimately this so-called "breakthrough" does little to quiet the critics of embryo destruction or the proponents of stem cell research using human embryos, such as myself, since why not use the unwanted extra embryos rather than going through the rigmarole of pulling cells out of those that make it to the eight-cell stage?
Today, Ron Green of Dartmouth University replied to Phil, who again passed it on. Another excerpt (below the fold):
This week the Holy See will hold its first official international congress on stem-cell research, an indication the Vatican isn't shying away from the science or ethics of the controversial field. Sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, the meeting will focus on alternatives to embryonic-stem-cell research, including adult stem cells and umbilical-cord-blood cells. Two of the most vocal U.S. critics of embryonic research plan to speak—David Prentice of the Family Research Council and Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Conference organizer Dr. Gian Luigi Gigli insists opponents of church doctrine will get air time, too. "We know already there are others who will present the opposite point of view," he says.
At the end of the congress, the group hopes to produce a formal resolution on the best course for future therapies. Participants will also get the ultimate perk: a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo. "Certainly he will take the opportunity to say something of his own," says Gigli. "It will be an important reflection of the Holy Father." The pope's remarks will likely be made public in the Vatican newspaper. But don't expect any major shifts in the pope's thinking, says Doerflinger: "The idea of a change in direction is pretty much a fantasy."
Well, now here's a chance to mix my political blogging and my religious blogging! Newsweek has an article profiling former Senator, Ambassador to the U.N. and Episcopal Priest John Danforth. An exerpt from the article:
Jack Danforth once stood at the intersection of religion and politics. He was a moderate Republican, three-term senator, diplomat. He is also an Episcopal priest, so pious that his Senate colleagues called him "St. Jack." With his new book "Faith and Politics," in stores next week, Danforth—now 70 and retired—positions himself as an outsider. He takes his own beloved party to task for allowing itself to be hijacked by the Christian right.
I'm going to be interested in reading this book. In addition to adding it to my ever-growing library of books on the religious right in America, I'd like to see what he has to say, if anything, about movements like Sojourners and some of the resurgent "religious left" organizations that are springing up.
My suspicion is that he won't say much. In part because these incipient movements are still pretty feeble, and have yet to prove themselves to be a genuine social or political force. But I also suspect that to spend much time on them would detract from his larger point, which will be something like "Can't we all just get along."
I say this because I had the chance to hear Danforth speak last year at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The event was a conference on progressive Christianity that featured not only Danforth but also Jim Wallis. Wallis gave the usual speach that I've heard him give in one way or another for about 10 years now. But apart from his editorial a few months earlier in the New York Times I didn't know much about Danforth. Unfortunately, his speech that night didn't add much light.
You see, Danforth was angry at some of the organizers of the conference, who had aparently made some connections between the Bush administration and the aftermath of Huricane Katrina (go figure!). Danforth thought he was being set up to endorse an agenda far more radical than he was prepared to, so he came in, spoke for about 15 minutes. Took a very few questions and then abruptly left. The overall tone was pretty hostile, but the message of his talk was pretty much what I suggested above: "Can't we all just get along."
Of course, I'm in favor of getting along. But getting along isn't a political strategy. And this is where my interests as a political person run up against my inclinations as a Christian. I find myself being double-minded about these things. On the one hand, I want reconcilation and a constructive, pragmatic debate on policies that will make the country a genuinely better place, because I think this is consistent with my Christian moral worldview. On the other hand, I want to win, dammit! WIN!!!!!
As you might imagine, this produces some inner tension.
But back to Danforth. It seems like his book will mostly be an in-house critique of the Republican captivity to the religious right. What will be interesting to see is what beyond a good scolding he actually has to offer the discussion of where we go from here.
My religion posting has been light of late (supplanted, alas, by too much YouTube and political blogging!). To remedy that, I'm going to start profiling some of my favorite religion blogs and websites, beginning with the Barth Society of Amherst.
For folks, like me, who are interested in Karl Barth's theology, but not willing to sign on for the label "barthian," this is a good resource site. It offers good interpretive posts, links to other sites, and an interesting perspective on things Barth. The header for the site announces its purpose:
We meet in Amherst, Massachusetts at 7:30pm on Monday nights in order to read a section of Church Dogmatics every week together. This blog helps us stay in touch with one another. It is also serves as a hub for discussion and advertising of current Barth scholarship.
If there's something like this in Chicago, I'd sure like to know about it!
Andrew Sullivan points toward a Time Magazine covery story on the so-called "Prosperity Gospel" movement. Here's a sample:
Osteen's relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher's insistence that one of God's top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime--and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less--Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn't have entry-level aspirations: "God has showed me that he doesn't want me to be a run-of-the-mill person," he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership's top salesmen made--and got the job. Banishing all doubt--"You can't sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts"--Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don't notch their first score until their second week. "Right now, I'm above average!" he exclaims. "It's a new day God has given me! I'm on my way to a six-figure income!" The sales commission will help with this month's rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: "Twenty-five acres," he says. "And three bedrooms. We're going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle."
"I'm dreaming big--because all of heaven is dreaming big," Adams continues. "Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us," he says. "But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It's Joel Osteen's ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?"
This is a truly mind-boggling perversion of the message of the Gospel, and in fact turns the entire notion of Christian love on its head. Whereas Augustine said that the essence of sin was the human person turned in upon him or herself, Osteen's version of Christianity is all about turning inward on ourselves. Sullivan, who again, is right so often that I don't understand how he can be wrong so often, writes this:
There are few messages more obvious in the Gospels than a disregard for the biological family and a rejection of earthly wealth. Jesus says nothing about abortion or homosexuality, but he is quite clear about abandoning your spouse, parents and children and divesting yourself of all worldly goods. These are terribly difficult doctrines; and few of us who call ourselves Christians are able to live by them. But most Christians have at least not deceived themselves into thinking that the Gospels are actually about family life above everything and wealth as a critical element of Christian life. Until now. The Prosperity Gospel is one of the greatest blasphemies against the message of Jesus - but it is increasingly a part of the American "Christian" landscape. After all, why lambaste the wealth your congregants crave when you can demonize the minorities outside? This Time cover-story is chilling about what has happened to Christianity in some parts of the country. Just dont expect the religious right to criticize it.
Thus Frank Rich in today's New York Times (subscription required, sorry!):
In his speech last week, Mr. Rumsfeld paraphrased Winston Churchill: Appeasing tyrants is “a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.” He can quote Churchill all he wants, but if he wants to self-righteously use that argument to smear others, the record shows that Mr. Rumsfeld cozied up to the crocodile of Baghdad as smarmily as anyone. To borrow the defense secretary’s own formulation, he suffers from moral confusion about Saddam.
Mr. Rumsfeld also suffers from intellectual confusion about terrorism. He might not have appeased Al Qaeda but he certainly enabled it. Like Chamberlain, he didn’t recognize the severity of the looming threat until it was too late. Had he done so, maybe his boss would not have blown off intelligence about imminent Qaeda attacks while on siesta in Crawford.