CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Two Ethical Power Failures for the Price of One

Nov 8, 2006

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.

[818 words]

5 Responses to Two Ethical Power Failures for the Price of One

  • Christians are to blame. They have been deceived. If you were the Enemy, where would you concentrate your efforts? In the Church, that’s where! The Enemy has been successful in pursuading most of the Body to abandon its purpose of pressing the crown rights of King Jesus in all areas of life in exchange for a mess of experientialist pottage. The light of the world having been withdrawn and hidden under a bushel of pietistic irrelevance, the world is predictably stumbling around in the darkness of moral benightedness, and now we have all these little Dr Mengeles running around getting their way. All because Christians have been deceived into standing on the side lines watching, not realising they’re meant to be the main players!

    Francis Gamba, Melbourne

  • Good on you Bill. As usual, your insight is clear and your ethics healthy. Interesting that you note the connection between the two. A part of God’s judgment is that we be given poor thinking and judgment when we refuse to walk in His ways – silly thinking that ends up in us harming ourselves. I have seen this at work in my own life and many others as well. Those who are silly enough to hear His voice and obey His promptings will have good insight and judgment, and will not “grope at noonday” Deuteronomy 28:29. You yourself are a living example of this principle.

    Ian Brearley, ACT

  • Thanks Frank
    Yes the church is largely to blame, but not solely. There is a concentrated opposition that is working overtime on these issues, so they share some of the blame. But, yes, many in the church are asleep at the wheel, uninterested and uninvolved. So we often lose by default.
    But there are many good believers who are active and in the thick of things, and they deserve some credit.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I agree with Frank. The Humanists would not have made such great advances if the Christians hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel. It’s true some are awake but probably not enough yet to turn the tide (assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return). The church is losing ground everywhere – firstly superficial Christianity is ensuring a net loss of true converts (we are losing ground numerically), and secondly by withdrawing from government and politics we are losing ground politically and intellectually.

    But to address the point of the article: Bill you are right especially in regard to the first editorial you mention. I too hate the false dichotomy of “religion and science”, but we hear it all the time. I would go one step further than you where you said that “[scientists] can operate with as much faith and belief as any religious person.” I would say that scientists are incapable of operating without faith and belief because all worldviews are religious even and especially modern atheism. The modern atheist who believes in Darwinian/naturalistic evolution has a far stronger (and blind) faith than does any Christian!

    I firmly believe that the single greatest message (beyond the Gospel) that the church needs to proclaim to ‘secular’ society is the fact that ‘secularism’, as most people understand the term, simply does not exist. No person, or group, or government is religiously neutral.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • This comment comes purely from something I have been thinking on for a number of years now, and does stray a bit from the science v’s faith debate. In my view science depends on some level of faith to exist. But the issue I want to pull out from this debate is the church being blamed for all the problems in the world, and by Christians at that. I too have taken my easy punches at the church and its conduct in the past, but who really is the church? I would say myself and anyone else claiming to be a follower of Christ. Not once has God removed the name of church from this body of people who have not always accurately represented his character, so why should I think myself any better?
    All I want to achieve with sharing these thoughts is that maybe a few Christians with a hunger for justice will begin praying for their pastors and encouraging them in the good they do. The New Testament is full of comments from great apostles saying pray for those in leadership. They carry a great burden and I feel could use a little encouragement from us as “the church”.

    Naomi Lloyd, Perth

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