Of Stem Cells, Strawmen, and the Old Bait and Switch

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Part
of me (the peaceful middle aged guy I am today) didn't want to write
this column. While part of me (the blue collar Irish Catholic New
York City kid inside) couldn't stop himself. By the number of words
below you can guess who won.

It
is poor practice to begin a presentation with a qualification. In
spite of that, I will start by saying that I am a big fan of WorldNetDaily.
WND is the best news and information site on the Internet just as
LRC is the best opinion site. Joseph Farah is a man I admire for
what he has accomplished in building WND. Often I do not agree with
what I read in WND's Commentary section. I do not expect to. But
I do respect the points of view being presented for their integrity
if not always for content. The other day I ran into a big exception
with a
column by a member of Mr. Farah's stable, Rip Rense
. I thought
twice before offering a rebuttal because these things tend to degenerate
into a level of bickering that is almost as boring to write as it
is to read.

Anyway,
Mr. Rense is a big fan of stem cell research. Any kind, anywhere,
for any reason. He likes words like blastocysts and fertilized eggs.
He neither likes nor respects people (especially Catholic people
but we'll get to that) who disagree with him on this. I can sympathize
because his column has inspired a similar feeling in me regarding
his opinions.

How
do I disagree? Let me count the ways. His opening contention that
the United States is a theocracy is so funny at face value that
no more needs be said on the subject, tempting though it might be.
He moves on to make a promising point, questioning by what authority
the federal government has any involvement at all in stem cell research.
For a while it looks as if the piece is going to be a statement
on the Constitutional limits on government activity. This point
would seem self evident if one even pretends to honor the Constutution
and its intent. But no, it is not to be. Mr. Rense is quite prepared
to bless governmental involvement and the confiscation of my money
if it agrees with him. He then heads right back to his theocracy
joke.

Where
he really loses me, and on a very personal level, is when he launches
nto his anti-Catholic diatribe: "It's murder! So shout some
folks, whose religion instructs them to do so. If you think this
is a reference to that particular faith that advocates wild and
rampant procreation.that fuels out-of-control reproduction and overpopulation.the
world over.You're right!"

Well,
I guess that's it. It's over. Aquinas, pack our bags. DeSales, fold
up the tents. Augustine, hose down the elephants. Time for us to
leave town. Rip Rense has passed judgement and found us wanting.
Time for all of us Catholics to admit 2,000 years of error and take
up Rippian realism as our philosophy of life. Instead of having
our religious beliefs "instruct" us we can just wait for
Rip Rense to tell us what to think and everything will be jake.
We can simply wait for the Doctrine of Pundit Infallibility to kick
in and act accordingly.

I
am 49 years old, born and raised Roman Catholic and it seems I have
been missing something. Thank goodness Mr. Rense has deigned to
point it out because I must have been absent the day Father O'Malley
taught us the part about "wild and rampant procreation."
I'll be sure to check my catechism tonight. Talk about missing the
boat. I had this one all backwards. My coded transmission from Rome
must have been garbled that night.

Here's
another newsflash. Overpopulation doesn't exist. Malthus was wrong.
Paul Erlich was wrong. All the other enviro-socialists are wrong.
This planet was made for us and human invention has found ways to
more than provide for ever increasing numbers of people. Always
will. Starvation exists but mostly because of corrupt and intrusive
governments and, increasingly, because of green totalitarianism.
But not because there are too many people. People are our greatest
resource, not our greatest problem. We have plenty of room for many
more and we Catholics are willing to do our part.

The
holes in Mr. Rense's actual "arguments" regarding stem
cell research are almost too numerous to mention. But I'll take
a crack at one or two. I placed those quotation marks around "arguments"
because the word seems generous in this context. Much of what he
dishes up is nothing more that moral relativism, false equivalencies,
non sequiturs and forensic tricks. A poor, Virginia printer might
not know the technical name for these rhetorical devices but a city
kid can recognize what is when it starts getting deep.

Let's
start with the intellectual laziness of failing to make simple distinctions
in order to set up a strawman as an easy target for his self-righteousness.
Let it be noted that Catholic objections are made to embryonic stem
cell research and not stem cell research per se. There is a difference
but Mr. Rense nowhere acknowledges this. It is entirely possible
to support stem cell research while opposing the creation of human
life in order to destroy it in a sacrificial harvest. I do.

Obtaining
stem cells from adult volunteers is a perfectly feasible method
of building up the reserves needed for research. Stem cells are
found in adult fat cells (Calling Ted Kennedy! Calling Al Sharpton!)
and, just this week, in skin cells. Let's think about that for a
paragraph or two.

Typical
media coverage of the issue portrays omniscient science being totally
in the know about stem cells. And the scientists they cover act
as if they have had this whole think figured out forever and we
peasants are just now catching on and we had better hurry up about
it. Well, that ain't the way it is. Some scientist just figured
out a few days ago that skin is a source of stem cells. Skin! And
everyone was amazed. So think about it. How much do we really know
and how much is just blowing smoke? And why the sudden need for
this rush to judgement?

Stem
cells can also be found in umbilical cords after infants (You know,
live babies. Remember them?) are born. Potential new sources of
stem cells are being found as you read this. Respected, reputable
people who work in the field have said that there is no clear advantage
to using embryonic stem cells over any other sort. So how did it
get to be so important that we agree to end human life by harvesting
them from embryos? Cui bono? You tell me.

You
see, the thing about stem cells is that they are undifferentiated.
They have not yet specialized. That's what the hubbub is all about.
The whole promise of stem cell research lies in turning cells from
generalists to specialists. Kind of like grad schools make doctors
and engineers out of regular old undergrads. We are attempting to
take a generic cell and turn it into one that specializes in producing
insulin or making a heart beat or some other necessary function.
It is wonderful and amazing stuff. But a stem cell is a stem cell
is a stem cell. That's the point.

The
timeline for developing these specialized cells is also worth considering
in light of the urgency being portrayed in the public square. Most
of what I have read, when it is mentioned at all, talks about today's
research bearing fruit in 50 years. This somehow goes unmentioned
by either the lapdog media or Mr. Rense.

This
smacks of the old bait and switch ploy that grifters use on greedy
rubes. But this time the tactic is not being used to play on people's
greed. I would have no particular problem with that. You can't cheat
an honest man after all. Instead, the stem cell bait and switch
is playing on people's hope. People who have loved ones in dire
straits and will cling to hope like a drowning man will cling to
anything that floats. You can bet there are plenty of people out
there who hope this research will cure their child's diabetes so
he can live a normal life. Based on a realistic timeline, that is
unlikely but that gets swept under the carpet in order to manipulate
their emotions and gain their support. The answer is depressing
but still I ask, how low can you go?

There
is a great deal more in the column that raised my blood pressure
but you can read it for yourself. Bring your Zestril. Some of my
favorite passages are the real florid, outraged stuff where he says
things like how can you dare to oppose stem cell research unless
you help 13 year old crack addicts or Alzheimer's patients? (Of
course the Catholic Church does those things but bigotry dosen't
always make sense.) How dare we oppose embryo farms if there is
one other thing wrong in the world? And who are you (meaning you
and me) to judge when life begins? Well, we're not him and that
appears to be the point.

He
gets real worked up over visions of embryo farms that will grow
us into utopia. He gets so hot for it that he says he would like
to donate sperm to make some embryos. I bet he would, too. Visions
of earthly utopias tend to put me off. Maybe it is because they
have such a long, bloody history in places like Nazi Germany and
Communist Russia. They were going to improve the breed too. And
a Utopia founded on growing and killing human embryos so that Rip
Rense and I can live forever is particularly distasteful for any
number of reasons.

Of
course, Mr. Rense knows all of this if he is half as smart as he
thinks he is. I for one think he is. He knows he is misrepresenting
Catholic thinking on this issue. It is a cheap shot attempted as
an easy way to score points. Well, consider this attempted slam-dunk
rejected. Christianity is the most potent moral force on the plant,
has been for 2000 years and will remain so. Roman Catholic Christianity
has a recognizable face and an address, which makes us a natural
target for all kinds of bigotry. But that does not mean we will
take it quietly or roll over for any overheated Utopian with access
to the Internet. At least I'm not.

When
it comes to the decision between the Culture of Life and the Culture
of Death I know which side of the line I choose and why. Good cannot
come from evil no matter how the old bait and switch might try to
make it appear so.

August
20, 2001

Ed
Cobb [send him mail] is
a printer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He is a northerner by
birth, a southerner by choice, and a Catholic by the grace of God.

Ed
Cobb Archives

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