There were not one but two editorials in today’s Australian (November 8, 2006) that demonstrate how weak thinking and ethical poverty often run in tandem. One was on the recent cloning vote, and the other was on a surrogacy case. In the editorials the writers waxed eloquent about how wonderful both were, and sought to dismiss any reservations about them as irrational and obscurantist.
The editorial on cloning was a perfect example of the logical fallacy known as a false dilemma. It implied in a most obvious fashion that in the cloning/stem cell debate we had only two choices: science, or faith. The whole tenor of the piece was this: Who you gonna call? Not Ghostbusters, but science, of course. Any opposition to the cloning bill was simply dismissed as religious superstition standing in the way of fact-filled science.
Consider the terms used in the editorial. On the one side we had terms like ‘science’ and ‘rationality’. These were used in sharp juxtaposition to terms like ‘irrationality’, ‘belief’ and ‘fantasy’. There you have it. Hard-headed realism, science and fact versus woolly thinking, religious myth and superstition.
Sorry but I must call the editorial writers’ bluff here. This dichotomy does not in fact stand up to close scrutiny. For example, a number of eminent Australian and overseas scientists testified against the cloning and embryo research. Where do they fit into this false dichotomy? Is their evidence to be discarded and their science to be questioned because they take an opposing view on the matter?
Even avowedly secular groups offered strong opposition to the bill. Oops, another blow to the clichés. I am sure their views can somehow be discounted as well, even though one cannot play the religious card against them.
And scientists are not so purely objective and neutral as the editorial suggests. They can operate with as much faith and belief as any religious person, and they can easily act from vested interests. Simply wearing a white lab coat does not make one immune from faulty reasoning, wrong decision-making, or being able to be bought with a price.
The editorial also claims that the “present debate has been marred by outlandish statements from some opponents of the proposal”. Only the opponents? Were no outlandish and over-hyped claims made by the ‘clone and kill’ proponents? According to some of them, miracle cures were just around the corner.
It also speaks of “the quiet progress embryonic stem cell scientists have made” recently. I for one would really like to be informed as to just what that progress was. All I hear about are the tremendous strides being made with adult stem cell research. I have not heard of any human breakthroughs involving embryonic stem cell use.
The editorial glibly seeks to argue that this has been one big battle between science and religion. Hardly. It has been more a battle between good science and bad science. Between ethical science and unethical science. Between respect and disrespect for human life.
With this vote we have just taken another step into a brave new world, where the new biotechnologies will further dehumanise and depersonalise society. Humanity has been given another king hit, and it looks like more will be coming.
And this leads to the second editorial, which heaps lavish praise on Federal Labor MP Stephen Conroy and Paula Benson, who just had a child through surrogacy. As I have written on the subject of surrogacy elsewhere in the bioethics section of this website, I will not repeat all of my concerns here. Suffice it to say that all the thick praise for the process needs to be balanced by some realism.
While it is always normal and natural to want to have a child, nature offers no guarantees, and simply giving carte blanche approval to any and all assisted reproductive technologies is not a wise path to take. It is true that some couples (and singles) will pay any price to have a baby, but should they? Should any means be considered legitimate if it results in a child?
This takes us back to cloning. If the end is a good thing – a child – why not approve of the means? Why not allow any method for those desperate couples who so much wish to have a child? But such means always come with a price, be it medical, moral or social.
The editorial on surrogacy also features mistakes and faulty reasoning. For example, it claims that there “was no financial component to the arrangement”. False. The Conways did pay for the expenses involved with the birth. And the editorial rules out adoption because of a five-year waiting period. But why does such a period of time rule out adoption?
All in all the Australian editorial writers seem guilty of both ethical laxity and intellectual weakness. It’s a pity, because the stakes are so high in what is being debated here.