Stem Cell "Crusader"

I just got back from a conference on the state of genomic medicine at NIH in Bethesda, at which we were all given a copy of the February 11, 2011 issue of the highly regarded scientific magazine Nature (courtesy of the magazine, not your tax dollars). When I returned to the hotel, I began perusing the hard copy--something I rarely do anymore (except, of course, for Commonweal.)I discovered an interesting article profiling Theresa Deisher, a plaintiff in a federal case opposing the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Deisher is Catholic--and a good portion of the article focuses on her movement away from, and back to Catholicism, and her changing views of abortion.A few things struck me about the article. First, one could not read it and discover, even in summary form, what the arguments were for and against viewing the early embryo as a distinct equally protectable human being. That struck me as rather odd, since this is a journal of science, not of personality. Why not a couple of paragraphs outlining the question?Second, a casual reader would be justified in drawing the conclusion that commitment to the humanity of the early embryo is purely a matter of faith, a leap of faith, so to speak, for a devout Catholic. But that's not right. Both sides in the debate for and against ESR (and there are Catholics on both sides) think they're making arguments partially based in science. How good those scientific arguments are needs to be evaluated in scientific terms. And how good those arguments are matters, from a Catholic point of view, for the resolution of the question. Rhetorically, I think that the impression that Dreisher's arguments don't hold up scientifically is created indirectly, by invoking her equal commitment to the view that vaccinations cause autism--a view that has been scientifically debunked again and again.Third, for all that, the article isn't mean to Deisher--it doesn't depict her as stupid or deliberately mean herself. Maybe a bit arrogant--but that's not an uncommon trait in bright, dedicated people. Certainly passionate about what she believes in--but that is not presented as a character flaw here. There is evident sympathy for her, even admiration for her, in the article. It takes pains, for example, to point out that she is a reluctant plaintiff in the federal case, and that many of her friends have other positions.This article will shape the way many scientists, the majority of whom are not Catholic, view Catholicism. What do you think of the way it appears? Does the article, overall, simply harden the perception of an ongoing battle between religion and science?

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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