The Niche

Blurring embryo-fetus distinctions disingenuous

My post on Inconsistent Christianity prompted this reply from Jessica Kolman, our office manager and art researcher:

In reading your entry about inconsistent Christian views on reprogramming, I can’t help thinking that one reason for the inconsistencies is that so few people actually know what the facts are. Your entry cites the garbling of facts, but it may be that the facts are more garbled in the mind of the average American than this small example indicates. I’m not saying I’m any better—I don’t have a scientific background or claim to understand an iota of technical detail. I only recently learned that an embryo is a bundle of cells that haven’t become tissues of the body yet, and until then, I thought “embryo” was a little dude with a big head and spots where the eyes will go. I’m increasingly convinced that a large segment of the public thinks that, too. Even Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion,” constantly refers to “embryos” in the context of abortions. I suspect the renowned biologist does know the difference between an embryo and a fetus, but he is pro-choice, so he disingenuously uses “embryo” to make abortion seem less distressing. Similarly, there may be ES cell research opponents who subtly conflate the two, in order to make embryonic research seem more distressing.

If the opponents of ES cell research are aware of the differences between embryo and fetus, they shouldn’t be saying that the recent research using cells from aborted fetuses is “as bad” as using embryos—it would surely be much worse. Obviously people like the quoted Dr Deisher make the appropriate distinction vis a vis the respective characteristics of embryos and fetuses, but she may be incorrect if she thinks the public she’s addressing does. Have there been any polls to find out what people think they’re talking about when they talk about embryos? Have scientists gone on Larry King and explained it–as someone explained to me? Or forget Larry, scientists should go on Christian broadcasts, or provide informative articles for Christian sites like the Catholic News Service and Baptist Press, since it seems to be these Christian communities that are mounting most of the opposition to their research. Would the Christian broadcasters and webmasters invite or welcome the scientists?

On the other hand, let’s assume everyone is smarter than I am, which wouldn’t surprise me, and never had any fuzziness about the fetus/embryo distinction. Fine. The research can still be opposed for thoughtful, clearly-articulated reasons, as in the commentary by Markus Grompe. I personally favor ES cell research and am not persuaded by Dr Grompe’s arguments, but at least they make me see and consider the other side carefully. But when I clicked on the Baptist Press link, my eagerness to hear the other side wilted fast. There was a top headline devoted to a scandal in which actress Diane Keaton said a swear word on TV. And scrolling down a few bars: an entire collection of articles devoted to debunking Mormonism and—I’m not sure what the opposite of debunking is, I guess bunking—the Baptist version of religion. Actual quote from the site: “In the last part in this series, we saw that the Bible is reliable, being textually pure and verifiably accurate in many places.” It goes on to say that the Book of Mormon, in stark contrast, is most certainly not verifiable. The articles site historical and archaeological scholars to disprove the Mormon stories, the implication being that historians and archaeologists would line up to defend the veracity of Adam and Eve and Noah’s flood. Or possibly the writers of these articles are of the “some parts are true and the rest is metaphor” school of Biblical reading—I don’t actually know. Either way, they are of the “My book is right and yours is stupid” school.

ES cell research is a complicated issue requiring nuanced debate, and “this I know because the Bible tells me so” doesn’t cut it. The debate is about real issues in the real world; the “Bible-is-verifiable” worldview is built precariously on the make-believe. Why are the people that believe fiction is reality given so much power in shaping real reality? Well, because one of the beauties of our democracy is that everyone is allowed to participate. Still, should Nature Reports Stem Cells really draw attention to the most vociferous and least credible parties in the debate by including links to their sites? Let’s try to keep the focus elevated to where it belongs, on the real debate, in the real world, not the 6000-year-old world.


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