Thursday, November 09, 2006

Embryos, the Death Penalty, Religion, Science & the Pursuit of Truth

Today I was clicking around the internet reading some of the post-election articles about the South Dakota abortion ban referendum and I stumbled upon a web post by anti-reproductive justice activist Jill Stanek entitled "Embryonic stem cells = hair follicles". The title refers to an e-mail exchange between Stanek and one very astute thinker by the name of Megan Papesh. The exchange began when Papesh commented on an earlier post by Stanek which was titled--I kid you not--"Michael J. Fox is a Cannibal". If this were just a tongue-in-cheek statement meant to draw readers in to read what is essentially the same arguments made by many of the other anti-choice people on the web, then I'd say Stanek deserves a thumbs-up for creativity. Unfortunately, Stanek is dead serious.

Papesh took issue with many of Stanek's claims and eventually pointed out that if all one needs to do in order to establish the personhood of a zygote is to prove is that the clump of cells were produced by the human body, then those cells that constitute a human hair follicle are also people. In other words, if abortions are murder because zygotes are living human cells, then pulling out a strand of hair is also murder because that hair follicle is also living human cells. I don't think that Stanek was able to grasp this because when she attempted to re-state this assertion, she claimed that Papesh was saying that embryos are hair follicles. I was able understand what Papesh was saying but I suspect that Papesh may have assumed that, since Stanek is a former nurse, she'd be educated on these issues to the extent that it wasn't necessary to write out her argument in "long-hand". If so, I can see why it didn't work. Unfortunately, in this country you can become a nurse without ever receiving as much biology education as a person with an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences from any half-way decent university.

However, even if Papesh had fleshed out her argument (which was perfectly logical, by the way) a bit more, I doubt that it would have made much of a difference with Stanek. From looking at her writings, Stanek mentions science when she thinks it can bolster what are essentially religious views. In one of her comments under the stem cell post, she states that her goal is to follow God's agenda "as much as possible". That means even if every single science text on the planet disagreed with her, she'd still be against the idea of allowing other women to choose what to do with their bodes. And make no mistake, her argument really is about whether other women should have this sort of choice because she certainly doesn't seem to think that the world should be able to dictate what she must do with her body. In her case, it seems that she believes that God should be the one who decides; I guess the rest of us are meant to ignore God and make her the arbiter of right and wrong.

In my comment, I decided to address Stanek's religious arguments since this is what is at the heart of her claims. I think that the science aspects should probably be discussed separately because it only confuses some people when they try to talk about both of these topics simultaneously.

I wish we lived in a world where people like Stanek could be ignored but as the British logician Bertrand Russell once stated, "The biggest cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid people are so sure about things and the intelligent folks are so full of doubts." As a result, when people like Stanek present their arguments to policy makers and voters, some who don't do their own research can take it for granted that science and religion actually support these assertions. Those who are distrustful of science already seem to be even more prone to take it for granted when religious authority figures make claims. This is especially sad because almost all of the major religions--including and especially the Abrahamic Trio--have well-established principles commanding adherents to personally engage in the pursuit of knowledge and Truth. But having a religious affiliation does not mean that one is any less likely to be lazy and inclined to skip the part about ascertaining the facts before believing what others say.

My favorite admonition for Christians comes in the book of Acts chapter 17: 11. It is written that the Muslim prophet Muhammad said that "seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim man and woman" and that God "cannot be worshipped except with knowledge" and that we are to "seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave" and "Allah makes the way to Paradise easy for him who treads the path in search of knowledge". I am quite sure that Judaism has just as many if not more references to the importance of education as well (Steven, if you happen to read this, if you don't mind, please point me to any particular ones you can think of off hand). At certain points in the past, much of the world's scientific research took place in religious institutes and/or were carried out by those who had followed devout callings. I wish that more people (those who buy into the politically expedient distrust for science that some wish to foster) would keep this in mind before they follow others blindly.

Well, I've gotten completely off-topic but I've just been thinking about this a lot as a result of all the election-time political bickering. Below you can read my comment to Stanek. Even if you're not especially religious, I think this is an important subject because, like it or not, if you're living in this world, then you will have to deal with the repercussions that come with being surrounded by people who do base their decisions around their religious views.

Hello Jill,

I just stumbled onto this site from another one on a related topic. Having read this thread, it seems that your arguments are still problematic at best. For instance, you discussed how the passage in the Bible that is commonly translated as "thou shalt not kill" should (disputedly) be rendered "you shall not murder". Well, let's say that's correct--which I believe it to be, by the way. That still wouldn't show that abortion is wrong in the eyes of God. The definition of the word "murder" is illegal killing. Therefore, unless abortion is illegal, it is not murder. "Murder" is a judicial term.

We could also look to the past when these commandments were given. Did the people (that these commandments were issued to) have any laws prohibiting abortion? This is a rather complicated issue but, in short, the answer is no. There are some restrictions on it but none of them applied to non-Jews even under the law code.

Then there's the subject of capital punishment you mentioned. Notice the quote you provided reads, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed". It does not say that God approved of this further act of bloodshed. To get an idea of how God feels about it, we can simply look at what proceeds it: "And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man." Notice it does not mention any exemption or condonation for those who kill for some particular reason that they believe to be justified. In other words, the those who kill in the name of the law will face the same judgment as those who perpetrate illegal killings. The Bible clearly states that GOD is the one who will do the accounting for the lives of man. It does not say that man is authorized to play God by deciding what punishment they think the person deserves. Doing this is playing God and does not reflect an understanding of our proper role in relation to our Creator. God is perfectly capable of giving people there just deserts. Unless one believes that God is unjust or that God really didn't mean it when He had those folks write these passages we read in our Bibles. This also spills over into the topic of wars.

Even if you believe that God condones humans killing those who have killed others, then you still have no scriptural grounds for supporting this war. In fact, if one believes that the killing of those who are not murderers is wrong in the eyes of God, then you can not support any war where it has not been established that every single person that will be killed is a murderer.

Now, let's look at what goes on in modern wars. The majority of weapons used do not and could not distinguish between murderers and those who have never killed a single person. I'm sure you are smart enough to see that this makes it nearly impossible for one to support any modern-day war. Well, you can support war but doing so put you in direct conflict with what you say God dictates.

I went back and took a look at Colossians 1:16 and this is what the NIV said:

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

It doesn't say what you claimed. Were you referring to some other verse?

Romans 13: 1-7 is a very relevant passage for one who wants to understand what position those who follow God should take in regards to government. Verse one is especially important. Notice it says that we should submit ourselves to the governing authorities. However, it does not say that we should support these governing authorities. If we had some obligation to support whatever government we live under, then this would mean that those who believe in the Bible would be obligated to fight and kill other Bible-believers whenever their governments decided they wanted to go to war with each other even if we didn't agree with the reasons for it. Can anyone truly believe that God would want that?

The last thing I want to address is your second to last sentence. The truth is it is always possible to follow God's agenda. If someone thinks that it's a-okay to support some kinds of killing, it's just hypocritical if you claim to be any different from all the other people who find killing people justifiable. Of course, God gives us free will and that means that people are free to be hypocritical if they just want to make themselves feel better about themselves while ignoring the "plank in their own eye" (Matt 7:3-5).

I forgot to ask one other question.

If you think that Michael J. Fox is a cannibal, then do you also see all those who have organ transplants as cannibals? After all, those organs are human too.


kactus said...

I notice that she has not replied to you yet. I hope you've given her a lot of food for thought, and perhaps challenged some of her assumptions.

luisa said...

This is a great post.

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked one of the 'pro-life' people "You claim you are against stem-cell research because you don't believe in killing innocent life to save life, then why do you support the war in Iraq? Arn't our soldiers innocent life?" or something like that. The conservative was speechless.

It is strange that the 'pro-life' crowd is 'pro-war.'

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I'm late to the post and don't know if you're still checking old comments. And I don't know if the original person addressed ever responded, but I didn't see a response.

I hope you don't mind if I make a few points.

I think the main moral difference between removing a hair follicle ("human cells") and removing an embryo ("human cells") is whether a life ends when those particular "cells" are removed. The "hair follicle" and “human cells” argument seems a little disingenous because removing hair doesn't "stop a beating heart" as the old saying goes and everybody knows it, whereas abortion after a certain point quite simply does stop a beating heart and everybody knows it.

Do you remember from U.S. history classes that, a long time ago, there was a man claiming he shouldn't be guilty of punching another man in the face because this was a free country and he was free to swing his arm wherever he chose? It went all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision the Supreme Court sent back was this: His "freedom to swing his arm wherever he chose" ended where the other man's nose began. That's the kind of argument I see as the reason why I never did buy the "my body" argument for abortion for any reason whatsoever. "My right over my body" is no longer an exclusive right where my child's body begins. In the womb, there's a shared status, shared rights, not a top-down power where the mother decides whether her child lives or dies because the child is still (for less than a year) inside her.

About the comments on murder being a legal term, please remember God's law. Even if there were no human courts and no human laws, what Cain did to Abel was still murder. So the existence of the laws on a set of human books is not the whole of the answer to whether something is wrong, as if we humans and the current legal codes were the final arbiters of right and wrong, what is murder and what is not. Just as words try to capture the meaning of a reality that already exists apart from any human words, so laws try to capture the meaning of right and wrong that already exist apart from any human laws.

On the Iraq war, I never did support that so I'm going to pick another example: WWII. I do NOT support, for example, what the Allies did in Dresden during WWII, and for basically the reason you name: an attack like that makes no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. But once someone puts on a soldier's uniform and takes up a weapon, that person has announced the intent to kill. Does that make them a murderer or someone actively planning and premeditating murder? Sometimes but not quite always. Self-defense has been distinguished from murder, and I think it is right to make this distinction. If someone was attacked and the defender killed his attacker, the guilt of the attacker's death was said to fall on the attacker, not on the defender. Which is why it was evil for Hitler to invade, but not evil for the attacked countries to fight back.

That's also why pro-lifers have no problem with abortion being legal when the mother's life is in danger. When the mother's life is in danger then abortion is morally the equivalent of self-defense and is morally innocent. It's also why we say plainly that when the mother's life is not in danger then abortion is not morally innocent.

On stem cells – Did you know that successul stem cell therapies use stem cells from umbilical cord blood, from adults, even from amniotic fluid? Did you know there have been huge problems developing equally successful stem cell treatments using embryonic stem cells, but that the pro-abortion crowd won’t let it go? I suspect that’s because, if comparable treatments could be developed from embryonic stem cells as are already successful from other types of stem cells, it would provide some sort of moral justification for taking an innocent human life – if you could take your child’s life and know that her death saved someone else’s life. I know a lot of pro-lifers, and I do not know a single one who is against stem cell research per se; only against embryonic stem cell research because it takes an innocent human life without compelling cause.

Take care & God bless