Why We Should Ignore Peter Singer on Stem Cells

In the March 29 Melbourne Age there appeared an article by Peter Singer entitled “Why we should ignore the Catholic Church on stem cells”. In it he took the Catholic Church in general, and Archbishop Hart in particular, to task for speaking out on the stem cell debate.

The gist of the article contained these two themes: 1) The Catholic Church has no right to speak out on the stem cell debate; and 2) embryos are not persons and have no inherent right to exist.

Concerning the first proposition, Singer argues that the Catholic Church depends on the Bible for its positions, but the Bible means nothing for those who do not accept its authority. He argues that Hart’s position is indefensible, “except within the terms of his own religion.”

Several things can be said about such statements. First, Singer is again using the sectarian card. He argues, in effect, that Christians should be precluded from the debate, that they have nothing to say on the debate, and/or what they say is somehow lacking in any credibility.

But the truth is, religious folk have as much right to speak out on social and moral issues as any one else. And the question needs to be asked, if Singer thinks they should not, then who does get a say? He would of course answer, in part at least, that the scientific community has the right to speak on such issues.

But several problems can be mentioned here. Science does not always get it right. Scientists can get it wrong just as much as church folk. Also, scientists  can be bought with a price, like any one else. There is big money in bio-tech, and as Daniel Greenberg argues in a new book, Science, Money and Politics, there has been a history of science selling its soul to the highest bidder. Wearing a white lab coat does not guarantee that financial interests have no sway.

Furthermore, we know from history that science is not always as neutral and objective as it ought to be. Just consider the way in which the scientific and medical community was allowed to be used by the Nazi regime.

Secondly, everyone argues from the presuppositions of their own worldview. This is as true of the religious person as the non-religious person. Singer has certain a priori beliefs which under-gird his system, just as religious people do. We all argue from the basis of certain presuppositions. The question is, which presuppositions are more coherent and logical than others? That discussion cannot be entered into here. Suffice it to say that religious folk have as much right to argue from their religious first principles as secularists do from their non-religious principles.

Thirdly, if Singer rejects any religious-based ethical system, he nonetheless brings his own ethical system into play: secular utilitarianism. He has replaced one philosophical system for another. Secular humanism has as many “faith” components as do religious belief systems. Indeed, not too long ago the US Supreme Court declared secular humanism to be a religion. The concomitant beliefs that there is no soul, no afterlife, no God, and so on, require as much faith to believe as do their counterparts. Science just cannot answer these kinds of questions. At least that is not an area it can claim expertise in.

Singer’s ethics show up in several places in his article. As a utilitarian, he sees no intrinsic worth in human life. Instead, everything must be based on utilitarian considerations. Thus he says it is no big deal that embryos be destroyed, since “the world already has more than six billion people”. But to argue that human life is expendable to help correct a perceived problem of overpopulation is itself a statement of faith. Science itself is not united in the belief that we are overpopulated. And even if it were, the argument is the same as was used by the Nazis. The notion of “lebensraum” (the need to give Germans more space) was used to justify the slaughter of millions. This too was a type of ethical argument – even if a bad one.

Singer’s other main point is that the embryo is somehow not a human, and he spends several paragraphs arguing that laboratory rats are more qualified to live. He regurgitates his argument against “species-ism”, that humans should not receive preferential treatment above other species. We should not elevate embryos, he says, “to a higher status than we give to non-human animals”. Indeed, “surplus human embryos are an ideal laboratory tool. Much better to use them, if we can use them to save the lives of more developed human beings, than to use ‘lab animals’.”

Singer here is at least being consistent. As a supporter of abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, he has always been more interested in animals than in humans. He has argued, for example that there is a greater case to be made against fishing than against abortion.

But it is Singer who now is bucking science. There is little doubt that human life begins at conception. Size is not the issue. A real human being, with a distinct genetic makeup, exists at fertilization. This human life is full of potential. It is not a potential human being. It will not grow into a carrot or a wombat.

Singer is guilty of “small-ism” here, to coin a phrase. He discriminates against certain human beings simply because of their smallness. Thus he has his own presuppositions about what constitutes personhood. If anything, he is as much entitled to such presuppositions as is a religious person.

And his piece was bucking science in regards to the original topic of debate: stem cells. He nowhere mentions the fact that adult stem cell research has in many ways made the whole discussion about embryonic stem cells redundant. But of course Singer would rather score anti-religious points than actually get involved in the facts of the debate.

Singer asks, “Are there any non-religious grounds to which the archbishop might appeal, in support of his claim that human embryos should be treated better than non-human animals?” The answer is yes. The case for adult stem cells can be made purely on the basis of science. And the fact that human life begins at conception can also be made apart from religious argument.

If society does one day decide that lab rats are to be preferred to unborn babies, then so be it. But Singer should not preclude a full 75 per cent of Australians from the debate simply because they claim to have a religious affiliation or believe in God. By arguing that people of faith are to be exempt from debate is to argue that only people who share Singer’s ‘faith’ may be allowed to discuss such issues. Such a tactic may silence the opposition, but it also silences democracy.  But if we are no better than animals, who is to argue that democracy is superior to the law of the jungle?

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