March 9, 2006

The Separation of Church and Bioethics

Our physical bodies should be as free from religious interference as our political bodies

By George Dvorsky, March 31, 2004

Earlier this month, around the same time that many Americans were howling with outrage over President Bush's shameless stacking of his bioethics council, Bill C-6 quietly slipped into law here in Canada.

With the ironic title of "An Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction," hot potato Bill C-6 finally wheezed into the books after several iterations, name changes and bill numbers. And like most things that arise from the debris of prolonged political battling, it emerged a wounded victim of compromise. Its wishy-washy, dubiously principled and middle-of-the-road character has made virtually no one happy, regardless of which side of the biopolitical fence they sit on.

This said, research scientists, the medical community and social liberals have a lot to be steamed about. It is now a criminal offense in Canada to engage in therapeutic cloning, to create an in vitro embryo for any purpose other than creating a human being (or for improving assisted human reproductive procedures), to maintain an embryo outside a woman's body for more than 14 days, to genetically manipulate embryos, to choose the gender of one's offspring, to sell human eggs and sperm and to engage in commercial surrogacy.

While I'm loath to admit it, and despite the merciful sanctioning of stem cell research (albeit under strict conditions), Canadian bioconservatives have clearly won a major battle here—and in this sense it's a de facto victory for religious interests. While not stated explicitly in the bill, it's quite obvious that C-6 upholds religious interpretations of personhood (namely the belief that life starts at conception) and theological injunctions against meddling in human biology and reproduction.

As the bio-Luddite camp continues to exert its influence in the US, as evidenced by Bush's recent maneuvering, I'm inclined to think that it's influencing and tainting Canadian sensibilities. For a country that's about to legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize marijuana, reactive legislation such as C-6 is puzzling. Instead of looking to progressive countries such as Sweden (which recently allowed therapeutic cloning), Canadians tend to look to the US for precedent, and Proselytizer Bush and the high-profile fundie Kassites are setting a disturbing example for bioethicists everywhere.

This blind acceptance of mixing ethics and medical science with religion is unacceptable, and it has got to stop. For centuries, societies have known better than to let religious influences interfere with democracy, due process, reason and scientific inquiry. The inalienable domains of human biology and procreation should be regarded no differently than the social and political arenas. Religious bioethics is full of inherent problems and inconsistencies. It's time to dismiss it and acknowledge the efficacy and validity of real and accountable secular bioethics. In biology as in politics, citizens have the right to be free from the pressures of organized religion.

The roots of repugnance

Leon Kass, who is fully aware of the negative implications of chairing a religiously biased President's Council on Bioethics, has adamantly declared his brand of ethics to be untainted by theology. On closer inspection, however, his claim is as disingenuous as it is false.

Kass has vigorously studied the Torah and has written extensively about the Bible, including his book on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom. He adheres to a conservative form of Judaism, attends synagogue and fasts on Yom Kippur. As Kass himself half-jokingly concedes, "I suffer from a late-onset, probably lethal, rabbinic gene which has gradually expressed itself, and it has taken me over." Further, says Kass, "I've come to treasure the biblical strand of our Western tradition more than the strand that flows from Athens."

So it's no surprise that his particular approach to bioethics betrays an adherence to longstanding Abrahamic injunctions against meddling with the human body and reproductive processes. Kass's "wisdom of repugnance" ethics asks us to evaluate issues simply based on how we feel about them. "In crucial cases," says Kass, "repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it." According to Kass, those things we find offensive, grotesque, revolting and repulsive are illegitimate and immoral for inexpressible reasons and regardless of what our logic tells us.

This so-called "yuck factor" ethics betrays its religious roots, what sociologist Emile Durkheim described as the religious fixation on the profane and sacred. "All known religious beliefs," wrote Durkheim, "whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by words profane and sacred."

Dividing the world into two domains is a tendency that runs rampant in the Abrahamic religious traditions. It is a tradition that insists on the presence of good and evil, simplistic black and white arguments, good guys and bad guys, piety and sin, the natural and the unnatural and, of course, moral meaning in the delineation of those things we find appealing and those things we find yucky.

Elizabeth Blackburn, one of two bioethicists recently removed from the President's Council, has some harsh words for Kass and his yuck factor ethics. "[Kass has] questioned modern medical and biomedical science and taken the stance of a 'moral philosopher,' often invoking a 'wisdom of repugnance'—in other words, rejecting science, such as research involving embryonic stem cells, because it feels wrong to him. I remain convinced that this type of visceral reaction should launch, rather than end, debate."

Blackburn is right. But we can trace the "wisdom of repugnance" beyond a single person. At the heart of his argument, and in true arrogant ultraconservative fashion, what Kass is really proclaiming is that the current cultural norm, or more specifically, the norm that has been established by longstanding religious traditions in the West, is the only true gauge to help us determine what is moral or immoral. And because scientists have a nasty habit of undermining antiquated religious beliefs, and by implication cultural norms, it is most certainly in the best interest of religious conservatives to interfere with scientific advancement to keep the veils of ignorance high and the taboos firmly rooted.

Absolutely inadequate

Uninterested in reevaluating ethics and morality in the face of scientific progress, religious conservatives tend to defer to scripture for moral and existential authority. The Bible is treated as a portal into everything we need to know about anything—end of discussion.

Thus, ethical guidelines that arise from scripture tend to take on the form of absolutism. Since God has supposedly endowed us with the ultimate moral rulebook, religious adherents argue that a fixed and unassailable universal ethics can and should be applied to all people and at all times. In my mind, there is very little that separates this type of reasoning—this moral absolutism—from ideology.

Some might find it comforting to think that we have the answers to everything—especially the answers to deep and complex moral questions—but we don't. By necessity, therefore, what we require is a more sensible approach to formulating our ethics. This is where a relativistic or normative methodology comes in, leading to what is known as situational ethics, as formulated by such thinkers as Joseph Fletcher. Religious followers tend to have fits over this notion, incredulous to the idea that moral values are editable over time or specific to a situation.

However, since the extent of our knowledge at any given point in history is partial at best, we have to continually take stock of what we know about the human condition and add to an evolving and improving set of ethical standards. And while the religious are unwilling to accept this, different social environments—whether those differences arise from social or technological differences—will require different ethics.

Take life support systems for example. The prolongation of life by technological means is leading to some interesting dilemmas in how we treat and define death. We currently declare someone to be dead when their heart stops. But what if someone is completely brain dead and on life support? They are alive in the sense that their body is functioning, but for all intents and purposes, there's nobody home.

Technologies are forcing us to redefine and rethink previously established conventions and practices. Is it right to leave someone who is clearly dead—and permanently so—hooked up to a machine? Christians in particular have no difficultly answering this one, defaulting to scripture and speaking of the "sanctity" of life. Yet the prescientific, vitalistic authors of the Bible (assuming, of course, that God didn't write it) were never in a position where they had to distinguish between a fully conscious individual and a carcass with a beating heart. Consequently, Christian adherents are following an antiquated version of personhood. And while once reasonable and even helpful, many such religious beliefs are of little value today.

Harmful and contradictory

Indeed, as our insight expands due to scientific progress, so too do our ethical sensibilities. What we considered harmful yesterday does not necessarily appear so today; what we consider harmful today, may not seem so tomorrow.

Interracial marriages, for example, were not too long ago considered a repugnant and dangerous social experiment, but very few today would argue today that they are immoral or risky. It's a non-issue.

Similarly, today we are coping with the prospect of same-sex marriages. I predict that in a few decades from now—if not sooner—we will have the same kind of nonchalant attitude to gay and lesbian couples that we currently have to interracial couples.

And I don't use this analogy lightly. Apropos of this discussion, a strong argument can be made that much of our racial and sexual inhibitions were induced by religious mores. Deep Christian values, often mutating into secularized offshoots, permeate our society to this very day. In the past, Christianity in particular has played no small part in the perpetuation of not just racism and anti-homosexual bigotry (including heterocentrism and the insistence on monogamy), but has also contributed to misogyny, sexual repression and the ongoing struggle against biotechnology in general and reproductive freedoms in particular.

Religious interference with reproductive practices is particularly problematic, often leading to considerable harm. Last year the Catholic Church, in a move that I can only describe as pure evil (if I may be allowed to use such a term), declared that condoms do not halt the spread of AIDs because they have tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass. The statement put literally millions of followers at risk.

And in another example of religious meddling, in the US, thanks to the efforts of President Bush and his fourth century stance on reproductive rights, some women who are about to undergo abortions are being terrorized by clinicians who force them to watch gruesome videos depicting bloody fetuses.

In addition to being flawed, prejudicial and harmful, the Abrahamic ethic also tends to be contradictory, inconsistent and sometimes just plain nonsensical.

As an example, while supposedly upholding the principle of the sanctity of life at all costs, a number of bioconservatives—Kass included—have contradictorily railed against the prospect of life extension technologies. Apparently all life is equal, but some life is less equal than others.

And because religious ethicists believe that personhood begins at conception, it has been argued that work in embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning is unethical. But as Reason's Ronald Bailey has pointed out, this line of reasoning can lead to some rather bizarre conclusions, including the notion that every cell in the human body should be considered inviolable because, given the right circumstances, every cell could conceivably become a full grown human being.

It's this kind of alternate reality that religiously influenced bioconservatives tend to operate in, one in which a blastocyst—a microscopic clump of 150 cells—is actually considered not just a person, but a person with equal rights to someone who is fully sentient.

Atheism is a civil rights issue

And thus, liberals and social progressives in both Canada and the US march onward in their attempt to derail those who insist on using unfair, dangerous and illogical methodologies. In fact, many of today's reformers and activists—those people who tend to reject absolutist religious ethics—are busy cleaning up the mess of the Christian legacy in the West.

At the same time, however, the ongoing struggle to achieve the Ultimate Divorce, that between the church and state, slowly crawls forward. Today, as the highly organized and motivated forces of the Religious Right and the political God Squads overwhelm popular sentiment with their influence and sheer numbers, those who promote secular values get shunted to the sidelines.

Part of the problem, says humanist Eddie Tabash, is that atheists are a persecuted minority who have utterly failed to recognize this and do something about it. "The gay community, women, African Americans, and other minority groups have learned the importance of civil rights activism, and of electing their own to political office," argues Tabash. "Since the mood of the country is so antagonistic toward atheists, our own quest to secure and preserve equality before the law is clearly a civil rights issue. As such, just like any other unjustly despised minority, we must learn how to elect a number of our own to the halls of power."

Fortunately, despite recent events in Canada and the US, the political situation is not as glum as it might appear, for no other reason than that we live in liberal democracies. The Bush administration in particular, while it has certainly taken on the character of a theocracy, is most likely one election away from the history books, and along with it will go Kass and his disciples. One can only hope that he will be replaced by a real bioethicist, someone like Arthur Kaplan.

And despite the religious roadblocks, we shouldn't get too worried about scientific stagnation. Scientific progress and biotechnological advancements will continue to march onward. Our challenge is to guide these changes with reason, compassion and an ethics grounded in reality, fighting to keep religious ideology from seeping out and affecting those who don't subscribe to its ethical dogma.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, March 31, 2004.

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