A dialogue between a scientist and a catholic pro-life activist.

It’s not surprising in this melting pot of a nation, founded on religious tolerance, that people believe a variety of things. Neither is it surprising that some believers try to get other people to believe like they do. Southern Baptists, for example, aren’t considered to be true believers unless they “bear witness” to the non-believers. Everyone understands this, and for the most part tolerates it with a minimum of eye-rolling.

However, where the line is crossed is when believers in some article of faith attempt to assert the objective truth of said article by advancing a supposedly secular argument in favor of what they personally take on faith. For example, no one cares if you personally believe that life begins at conception, but when you start machinations to get such belief encoded into the law, people care.

I found a blog dedicated to doing exactly that for the Catholic faith. In one post, the blog author, Rebecca, is complaining about an editorial in Nature Neuroscience, which takes Dr. Maureen Condic to task for an sloppy and biased article she wrote for the Catholic magazine First Things.

The following unedited exchange is between myself and Rebecca.

Isn’t it amazing that discussion and even rebuttal to an unwarranted attack on an ethics article in an ethics journal are not “appropriate for our letters section”?

When we hear/read about editorial sloppiness and lack of evidence used to give “evidence based” guidelines by even the World Health Organization, such debate and information is more and more important – especially when we’re talking about killing people.

Thanks for spreading the word and stimulating the discussion.

I also saw your comment on the Scientific Activist blog. Thanks again.
#1 Beverly Nuckols (Homepage) on 2007-05-12 06:55 (Reply)

Well, we’ve made some progress, but aren’t there quite yet. Clearly, we should just stop, give up, and go ask our priest what experiments God wants us to do.

I understand your desire to advocate a position based on your beliefs, but doesn’t it feel a little disingenuous to always have to concoct some non-religious argument when it’s religion that’s your motivation?
#2 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-14 11:45 (Reply)

Mr. Gunn,

Thanks for the comment.

I think the point here is that Dr. Condic as a scientist has some real scientific concerns about the public funding of embryonic stem cell research. She never once mentioned religion or used a religious argument and yet she is accused of being biased and anti-science.

Her analysis was solid and her conclusions were valid and yet because she disagreed with the “party-line” she was accused of “distoring the field.”

Just because someone disagrees with using public funds to destroy human embryos for research does not mean they have a religious motivation. There are plenty of secularists that feel that is bad public policy.
#2.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-14 12:46 (Reply)

I read the article in Nature Neuroscience and Dr. Condic’s article in First Things. While there are scientists who don’t feel that ESC research is going to lead to therapies anytime soon, none of them are calling for the cessation of research as Dr. Condic does. As the editorial points out, using the lack of progress as an argument against the research which has been heavily restricted from the start is an example of circular reasoning, which either Dr. Condic isn’t smart enough to realize or is smart enough to realize and chooses to ignore.

The relevant facts as I see them are this:
She didn’t say anything that people who do research on ESCs don’t already know.
She argued that because we aren’t making fast enough progress, we should give up.
She made that argument in a catholic magazine.

Any one of these things by itself wouldn’t not be enough to indicate a motive, but taken together they do suggest a pattern, which you are as able to see as I am.

I know that you feel what you’re doing is the right thing to do, but can’t you at least be honest about it, rather than trying to insist that you have secular motives?
#3 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-14 14:19 (Reply)

ESC research is not restricted in most states and is not restricted federally. Researchers are free to conduct embryonic stem cell research. It is only federal funding that is limited to lines created before August of 2001.

Also, I am not pretending to be secular. I am openly Catholic. My point is that Dr. Condic nowhere in her article relies on any religious argument and yet she is branded with the religious anti-science sentiment.

I freely admit, I am against destroying embryos. I find it morally reprehensible. I understand that others do not agree and often present arguments that are practical or secular in nature so that those that read this blog who are not religious have something they can sink their teeth into as well.

Thanks again for your comments.
#3.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-14 18:12 (Reply)

The federal restriction cuts out researchers from the $100+ billion that the NIH spends on life science research, and more importantly, it cuts out researchers early in their career, when a federal grant is practically required to achieve tenure. The fact that some states such as New Jersey and California have finally begun to offer a tiny percentage of that amount doesn’t change the fact that the research has been and is substantially restricted. Saying simply that there’s no state restriction or no restriction as long as you use those contaminated cell lines is disingenuous.

Dr. Condic doesn’t say that her faith led her to write the editorial, but it’s in a catholic magazine and presents only the problems, with no upside mentioned. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think she knew she was presenting a faith-based argument, despite the absence of the word God on that particular page of the magazine. Rather, it’s you that needs to find her devoid of religious motivation, because that’s the only thing that gives your public policy recommendations any external validity. If there were secular reasons for a ban on ESC research, we’d be discussing those reasons, and not trying to claim that a column in a catholic publication is secular.

As I said, I understand that you need to feel a certain way about ESC research. There’s all kinds of research that makes people feel icky, take animal research for example. But as you no doubt know from following the debate across the ScienceBlogs network, scientists are actually moral people as well. Most scientists even profess belief in a God, and I think they really believe that they are good Protestants and Catholics and Jews and so on. In other words, they’ve thought about the ethical angle already.

The reason debates like this so often turn foul is that scientists are people of faith too, and don’t need people like you suggesting that they aren’t because their beliefs don’t exactly match yours. It’s actually kinda insulting.

Imagine how you would feel if someone came along and declared you and all your fellow catholics to be lacking in your faith and demanded that your church lose it’s tax-exempt status unless you professed young earth creationism.

The way the debates work now is for your side to claim that all scientists are godless heathens, and people like PZ to say, “Yeah, so? What are you gonna do about it?” I think we can do better. I agree that both sides share the responsibility for keeping the debate from reducing to a couple polarizing issues, but to do so takes intelligence, honesty, and compassion, all of which are in far too short supply these days. Maybe you’re right, maybe the best we can hope for is a shouting match, but how about this: You try to remember that scientists are moral people and we’ll try to remember that religious people aren’t all anti-science dummies. Deal?
#4 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 06:13 (Reply)

Dearest Mr. Gunn,

I’d say we have a deal.

Although, I think you are infering far too much. I would never say that all scientists are “godless heathens.” I am a scientist, I work with a lab full of scientists and none of them fit that description. I would never suggest that all scientists are not people of faith.

My personal beef with this entry is with the unnamed editors of Nature Neuroscience who singled out Dr. Condic and accused her of being “anti-science” and then denied her a chance to respond in print.

Whether you want to see them or not there are real secular reasons to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. As I have said before there are many readers of this blog that are secular and agree with me that it is bad public policy.

And by the way, who’s shouting? Certainly not me. 😉
#5 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 16:00 (Reply)

I appreciate your providing this forum, Rebecca.

Surely you can understand how a scientist might feel a little insulted by the language that is used by the pro-life groups to describe ESC research, and you know that it’s much more than just a suggestion from them that no moral person could pursue such research.

As far as Dr. Condic goes, the editor of Nature Neuroscience pointed out that she used circular reasoning to argue for the cessation of the research, which is anti-science pretty much any way you slice it. She is smart enough to know what she was doing, and the editor was right to call her out on it. The no rebuttal in print thing is just silly. After all, you don’t see the editor of NN wanting to print a rebuttal in FirstThings, do you?

Now, you may think me to be playing the rube, but could you tell me one of those secular reasons you mention?
#6 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 16:32 (Reply)

Certainly!

It is a fact that a human embryo is a human organism. That human organism needs to be destoryed in order to harvest embryonics stem cells. That is not in any way a religious argument.

There are secular humanists who believe it is immoral for the federal government to fund the destruction of human organisms regardless of their stage of development even if there maybe a potential benefit.

That being said there are many secularists who believe that public money is better spent on adult stem cell research that is farther ahead and doesn’t have the ethical issues attached. Researchers in other countries have made great progress in human patients with Parkinson’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease using their own stem cells. They think that if private investors want to fund embryonic stem cell research that has yet to go to human trials, let them. But when it comes to public funds, it is better to fund research that is farther ahead in terms of treating patients and that doesn’t have the ethical dilemmas.

Of course there is the problem of tumor formation by embryonic stem cells in animal models which is not a small hurdle to overcome. In addition, there is problem of the limited access to “leftover” embryos. For researchers to really do it right they will need more than the ~12,000 “leftover” embryos available in the US for donation to research.

That means they will have to make more embryos, either with SCNT or IVF. Both SCNT and IVF need eggs and there are pro-choice men and women who oppose embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning simply because it creates a demand for human eggs that will put young poor woman at risk for exploitation. Federal funding of SCNT will only increase the demand for human eggs and could possibly turn the most vunerable young women into egg farms.

That is what I can think of for now. I have 4 kids screaming for dinner, if I think of anything more I will let you know! 🙂
#6.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 17:21 (Reply)

The argument about an embryo/blastocyst/embryonic stem cell being alive doesn’t work because you wouldn’t say that a sperm or and egg is a living being, yet you can’t say what happens once they join that makes it suddenly a human, unless you invoke a religious argument and start talking about a soul and so on.

The “money would be better spent elsewhere” is simply a red herring. The budget isn’t fixed at any certain amount, so we could do both.

The idea that a market would be created for eggs is a real argument, and a secular one. However, medical ethics board have been able to handle plasma donations without exploiting people, so there’s precedent that your scenario won’t happen either.

What else ya got?
#7 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 18:54 (Reply)

You are wrong on the egg/sperm argument. An egg or sperm is not a human organism. They are haploid gamete cells. When they combine they create a new human organism with 46 chromosomes, idendtifiable by his or her unique DNA. A zygote is a complete human organism that will self direct its development toward more mature stages, while sperm and egg are just sex cells. That is a scientific fact.

A new human life begins at conception. That is indisputable and we shouldn’t really be arguing about that. What we are really arguing about is not whether an embryo is a human life, but whether it has value. My point is that there are plenty of secularists that think a human embryo has value simply because it is a human life. They would argue that it is not moral for the federal government to use public funds to pay for research that destroys human life. No religious argument needed.

Also, the egg donation is a real problem. Donating plasma does not put a woman’s fertility at risk (and sometimes her life.) Plasma donors are not required to inject hormones and go through minor surgery and they are certainly not paid $3000 to $5000 a pop.
#7.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 21:45 (Reply)

Whoa there. Let’s back up a sec. The question was, “If a sperm isn’t a human being which has value, and an egg isn’t a human being which has value, then what magic process happens at fertilization to confer that value to the union of the two?” Does half the value come from the egg and half from the sperm? Is the soul in the nucleus, or the cytoplasm? Does the magic start when the sperm hits the egg, or does the process have to wait until the gametes are fused? Since many fertilizations don’t lead to a viable embryo, does that mean it’s OK for God to kill embryos but it’s not OK for us, or has the magic not happened yet?

Going through this, I hope you can see the absurdity to try to pick some point and say “There! That’s life.” That’s why there’s no justification, to me, of using cells at one point but not at the other. Personally, I think life is magical. Maybe life is like a thread, extending unbroken throughout the generations, becoming woven into a fabric by the intermingling of gametes and the division of cells, but has no discrete end nor beginning. Who knows? It’s a mystery that we can’t explain, but that we have a moral duty to try to figure out as much as possible, so we can protect and preserve it, but also because finding things out is a good thing to do, in itself. I think we’ll laugh at how simplistic we were when we look back and remember that we use to think that a discrete unit of life began or ended at any point.

The attribution of value has a secular and a moral dimension. Of course, the only dimension upon which policy decisions should be based is the secular one, and though there is little data on this, it seems that the value to society of a couple extra fertilized eggs that are left over from an IVF treatment and that will never, ever become a human is pretty small. In fact, the reason more eggs are fertilized than may be necessary is because society in general finds it more valuable to have a successful IVF treatment than to have a couple extra fertilized eggs. You probably may be opposed to the whole idea of IVF to start with, based on the moral dimension, but from a societal standpoint the value is quite clear.

Let me expand on this just a bit, because you state that the argument, “It’s not moral to use public funds for ESC research” isn’t a religious argument. The whole argument is predicated on your particular religion’s way of answering “When does life begin?” so it really is a religious argument. It’s just your religion that doesn’t consider it to be so because they want to influence policy. Science can become ever more descriptive about the characteristics of life and living things, but there will always remain a central mystery, which is only addressable in religious terms. Isn’t that why we have a spiritual sense to begin with? To have a way of addressing those things which aren’t of this world? The mystery won’t ever go away, so religion won’t ever go away, either. You don’t have to worry about that. In fact, you should embrace your belief and be proud of it, rather than trying to deny that it’s your faith that makes you feel the way you do. It’s great that you’re Catholic. Humanity owes the Catholic faith a huge debt for preserving so much culture and learning through the dark ages. However, there are many, many faiths in this world, of which your faith, great as it is, is but one. Maybe it will be the Buddhists that will carry the torch through the next dark age, or maybe it will be something we don’t even know of yet. All of this goes to make the argument for tolerance. For not drawing some bright moral line at which you stand and fight for your particular version of the truth about life.

People have had a morbid fascination with the possibilities of life science for centuries. Frankenstein, plasmid DNA, and eugenics are examples of these moral horrors which scientists, being moral creatures aware of the ramifications of their acts even in the occasional absence of religious belief, have managed to prevent happening.

Give ’em some credit. Perhaps they’ve thought about these things and have some justification for believing that they can head off the horrible scenario which could come to pass, if we’re not careful. They are careful and they’re moral people too. Give ’em some credit and let them do their job. For the most part, they’re moral people too, and they’re working for you.

I don’t actually expect you to say, “Well, now that you put it that way, I see that I should stop assuming that I’m right and they’re wrong.” Humans aren’t good at doing that, because they prefer strong feelings and moral absolutes, but just consider what I said about different versions of the truth about life.
#8 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-16 06:06 (Reply)

I am glad that you appreciate my faith. But my faith is not what tells me that human life begins at conception. Science tells me that. [emphasis added -Mr. Gunn]I can say “There! that is a new human life” because I can test an embryo’s DNA and say definitively that it is human and that it is an organism that’s DNA is distinct from the genetic material of either the egg or sperm. You can keep saying that this is a religious view, but it is not.

Now it is my religion tells me that human life has value at all stages, a judgement science could never make. I understand that this is where others disagree because of religion or philosophy.

I think you are confusing the distinction between “cells” and “organisms” like many people do. A cell is a subunit of an organism. An embryo may only consist of few cells but make no mistake it is not just any “clump of cells” like a lump of liver cells. It is a complete human organism, albeit still early in development.
#8.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-16 16:07 (Reply)

I’m afraid what is so clear to you isn’t so clear to me. Could you elaborate on this DNA criteria?

In what way is a fertilized egg’s DNA different from a sperm or an egg? I understand the process of recombination and crossing over, but I’m not sure if that’s what you mean.
#9 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-16 17:25 (Reply)

Egg and sperm only have one copy of each gene, 23 chromosomes. A fertilized egg, or zygote has 46 chromosomes or 2 copies of every gene. With standard human identification techniques I could, in my lab, distingush between the DNA in the embryo which is unique to that embryo, and the DNA from either the egg or sperm that fused to create it. Look into preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) which is used to screen embryos for genetic defects. If the embryo was simply an extension of egg and sperm and not its own organism PGD wouldn’t be useful because the genetic results would be identical to the parents.

Was that your question?
#10 Rebecca on 2007-05-17 14:22 (Reply)

Thanks for the reply, Rebecca.

I think I understand what you’re saying, but there are still a couple things about your position that I’m unclear on.

Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you here: Are you saying that genetic recombination and strand cross-over must happen for the fertilized egg to be considered life, or are you saying that attainment of 2n ploidy with alleles different from the mother of father is necessary?

Are these processes the cause of life(i.e. before recombination, the cell isn’t considered a separate life), or are they merely indicative of the cell becoming a separate life(i.e. something else caused the fertilized cell to become a separate life, and recombination is necessarily subsequent)?
#11 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-17 16:21 (Reply)

I got no further reply from Rebecca after this. She has since taken a hiatus from blogging, shortly after posting an article about being under “spiritual attack“.

About Mr. Gunn

Science, Scholarly Communication, and Mendeley

24. May 2007 by Mr. Gunn
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