God And The Embryo; Religious Voices On Stem Cells And Cloning

Brent Waters & Ronald Cole-Turner, Editors.

2003, Georgetown University Press

ISBN 0-87840-998-X

Ten ethicists and theologians provide an anthology of religious interpretations for the dilemma posed by modern development in embryo science, and the debate over the rights of human kind to begin to create, repair and improve life. There are no scientists or doctors contributing to this work, but this does not detract from the richness of "facts" that the reader can glean from this collection. For instance, we gather that the United States alone has up to 200,000 frozen embryos in storage ready to be used for either therapeutic or reproductive purposes. Most Jews and many Christians, one contributor argues, are for the therapeutic initiatives that embryos can offer, but against the reproductive ones, while the U.S. Congress is against the entire enterprise, whether in search of cures or to assist those who want children but who cannot have them.

The savvy reader can also learn about somatic cell nuclear transfer in humans: how humans can be created from "sucking" the nuclear materials from the cell of an adult. There are also business world dilemmas and forces at work: more than 3,000 Americans die of diabetes every year, but embryonic research may be able to provide a cure. If the policy-makers, informed as they are by "moral majorities" shut off federal funding, then what are saying to the those diabetics who were hoping for a cure?

The second chapter asks the most relevant question: what is the appropriate contribution of religious communities in the public debate on embryonic stem cell research ? Its author, Brent Waters, a director of ethics at an American theological seminary believes that whatever we mean by "public" must include a religious voice. This is so because the legal, the constitutional, the government "rhetoric" is shallow, and not broad enough. Only theology, Waters says, can craft a language rich enough to deepen the debate so that we can look beyond the immediate.

Indeed, the theme of immediacy returns in the final chapter. The authors adopt an urgent tone that sounds an alarm for humankind. Even the nine Appendices at the end of the book – which provide the official statements of several Christian denominations and one Jewish group in the U.S., as well as Washington’s own policy on the topic – have a alarmist tone, urging readers and biological matter contributors to adopt a stance, to participate in this ultimate debate: which involves, as one author puts it, what we think and what we will become. If the book asks all the relevant questions it evidently lacks answers; and even if one were not interested in these, the book still does not provide a broad enough sampling of religious views beyond the Judeo-Christian perspectives.

Inexcusably, only medical ethics professor Laurie Zoloth introduces Islam to this otherwise stimulating exchange of views on what is arguably the most important present and future life dilemma for human kind. Zoloth also proposes six moral duties that flow from the questions unearthed our incessant research and biomedical advances. First, is justice, which Zoloth argues we craft ourselves; then comes moral discernment, symbolized by our ability to say "No" to such aberrations as slavery; third come healing and caring, which are a duty in many religious traditions; in fourth place are tending and transforming, because we see our planet and its inhabitants as requiring care and management; then learning and studying, Zoloth says, because we act on what we learn; and finally solidarity and community which is the only time that Islam is brought to the fore, but only fleetingly.

This inexcusable omission – or concentration of content on the Judeo-Christian traditions - of this collection of works on this our newly-found ability to (re)create life is further evidence of an inexplicable intellectual autism among academics, sponsors, researchers and publishers in the realm of the social and natural sciences.

Three excerpts follow:

This careful attention to the facts is essential because, at least among theistic traditions, the encounter with material reality is here and everywhere the encounter with creation, and this with the creative intention of God. One broad and deep strand of Jewish and Christian thought draws on this identification as well as on a notion of the "fittedness" of human perception and reason to discern something of the divine intention from the character and ordering of the world we encounter. One need not be a natural theologian of full-blown scholastic commitments to recognize that part of how we discern what is due in justice to a being is to attend to the reality of that being: its origins, its characteristics and capacities, and the foreseeable path along which its existence moves.
p. 153

More broadly, we must attend to, analyze, and challenge the cultural context that permeates this and all conversations about right and wrong in the development and application of new biotechnology. Ours is a culture in which expediency is the moral coin of the realm. Even conversations that purport to be about matters of principle soon give way to utilitarian calculations, as we entertain projections of just how useful it will be if we decide that no countervailing duty offers a barrier to our project…

[W]hat arises form this web of convictions is a theological anthropology, a distinctive account of the nature and purpose and meaning of human life. It is an account that does not see the fullness of life finally in terms of the avoidance of suffering or the successful overcoming of the vulnerability and contingency of mortal existence. According to this view, the meaning of life is rather to be found in the depth and fidelity of relationships. Christians and Jews assert that, in its most fundamental form, the meaning of life is that we are to love God with all our heart, and soul and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.
p. 159.

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