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Stem Cells Redux: There Will Be Blood

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At least we no longer have a so-called Bioethics Commission in the White House led by a philosopher and two journalists pontificating about what science should and should not do. But we can expect that soon the old arguments will slither out of the woodwork to confuse the public with religious ideology masquerading as "ethics".

What's important is to keep our eyes on the ball and remember the fundamentals. Here are the words of Leon Kass, the Bush administration anti-stem cells guru: "In this age in which everything is held to be permissible as long as it is freely done, and in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational will, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity."

According to our new Luddites, the true test of whether scientific research should be permissible depends on whether or not the research seems repugnant. Philsopher Leon R. Kass, has called this "the wisdom of repugnance".

But the question philosopher Kass fails to ask because it dooms his argument leaps out anyway: Whose repugnance?

As many people have pointed out, anesthesia was once decried as repugnant because it contravened God's will for women to suffer during labor, and in vitro fertilization was initially assailed as a dehumanizing repugnant slippery slope. History is littered with arguments about repugnance in oppositions to advances in science and technology.

So the question is whose repugnance? And where and in what time? Five years ago, it was the members of the Presidential Council on Bioethics who decided what is repugnant and what is not repugnant. That council, and something called the Bioethics Project, a group organized by conservative magazine editor William Kristol, ruled bioethics in America. The neocon Luddite cabal of philosopher Leon Kass, newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer, magazine editor William Kristol, and social theorist Francis Fukuyama decided that some areas of scientific research (including research on extending human life) are too disgusting to be tolerated and require prohibition.

Although this bio-Luddite gang of four contained no scientists, both Kass and Krauthammer had some previous exposure to science, since they were at one time medical students. But whatever science they absorbed had apparently never been a factor in their arguments, which were for the most part based on their views of ethics, morality, religion, and an elitist attitude that they were the appointed shepherds of the flock.

If we accept their ideas again, where are we if not back to the medieval theological councils issuing edicts about what can and cannot be done by people in the sciences? The early medieval mind found the study of human anatomy repugnant, and for a thousand years the progress of human medicine stagnated. Shall we accept the "wisdom of repugnance" as a guide for scientific research?

The Bush administration's embryonic stem cell policy was a sad mistake. History will note that the members of the old Kass Council on Bioethics who were working scientists did oppose the Council's recommendation to President Bush to ban embryonic stem cell research.

The strategy of neoconservative bio-Luddites is to impede or block completely any scientific research that they find "repugnant". Now that the ban has been lifted, stem cell research will face possible constraints in Congress. There will be blood. We will hear the old arguments about "repugnance" and the rest of us may again be potential victims of this socially destructive, anti-science, proto-fascist attitude that is certainly more dangerous to the public than any cluster of cells in a Petri dish. The "wisdom of repugnance" as a guide for science policy was always a sophomoric folly--and that hasn't changed.

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