U.S. Judge rules against Obama stem cell policy

Yesterday federal district Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruled that President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research violated a federal ban on the destruction of such embryos. Whether or not the ruling by Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth is good law, is for legal scholars and appellate judges to determine. It is rooted in the Dickey-Wicker amendment (an appropriations bill rider) that Congress passed in 1995 and continues to renew annually. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos that will be destroyed.

The underlying problem is the amendment itself, and how it came to be law and continues to be renewed. Stem cell research has become another missile in the abortion war. Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research due to the destruction of the embryos which they consider to be tantamount to abortion. At issue is a serious lack of scientific, philosophical and even theological knowledge. On this front, even some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, widely miss the mark. To be fair, there has been little attempt to address the real issue of human life and the embryo.

Theology is a proper discipline in its own right. However, when a theological subject intersects with other disciplines, it must consider what the empirical sciences contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States today, many people seem to think that their "faith," whatever it is, trumps everything else. This explains the relatively uninformed (at least unenlightened) approach to evolution among those who want the Biblical myth of creation taught as a competing understanding of creation.

In the case of stem cell research, a strong argument can be made for the fact the human life begins at conception. Nonetheless, the real issue should be personhood, and that simply cannot be claimed to exist at conception. This is not simply a semantic distinction. Scientifically, we know that a fertilized egg can split into identical twins up to 14 days after conception, on rare occasions even later. That would suggest that from day 14 both medical science and theology can agree that the embryo is a human person, at least insofar as the process of individuation is complete. Prior to that time there may be human life, but there is no sustaining argument for calling it a person. This should raise some question about the wisdom and even legitimacy of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, since laws should be enacted to protect persons, not some ethereal concept of human life.

Since scientists want the stem cells much earlier than 14 days, with 5-7 days being optimal, the process of individuation should silence the anti-abortion lobby. But this is the United States, and at this time in our history, people prefer to remain in the dark regarding real science. Perhaps part of the blame rests with elements within the government that have advanced what has been called "junk science" to the fore. Science and religion are not, or should not be, competing disciplines. It is possible for them to work together in the areas of human life where they intersect. For now, however, we are likely to continue to be led by people who refuse to let die a now tired cliché: "My mind's made up--don't confuse me with the facts."