Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Brownback/Specter Debate

Today's debate on stem cells by Sam Brownback and Arlen Specter was interesting. Brownback went for the jugular, playing his seemingly strongest cards. He repetitively ask Specter to say when his life began and then played the God card by claiming that all embryos were "sacred." But fertility clinic embryos are one spot where the Christian god is really weak. It was a lot easier to imagine that a god creates babies in early cities like those of the ancient Hebrews than it is when a fertility clinics is arranging the fertilization of an embryo for profit or research. At that point, the situation is more like a human version of an Olympian pantheon where the clinic managers, technicians, sperm donors, and clients all combine to bring an embryo into being. Fertility technology makes the people into gods and muscles the monotheistic God of the Judeo-Christian tradition off the stage. Brownback's assertion that embryo's are sacred is a weak gesture to a God who's lost yet another one of his main functions. Human beings are the gods of embryo creation.

Brownback's question about where Specter's life began had weaknesses as well. From Specter's point of view (or mine), the question of when his life began had two components--"my" and "life." "Life" may have begun in a certain way when the sperm from Specter's father and egg of his mother combined, but when that life became Specter's life is a real problem for Brownback in two ways. First, there's the problem of identifying when that sort of living thing became Specter's. The one cell embryo that eventually became Specter had an existence, but Specter had no personality to claim that existence as his own. His life had not begun yet. Indeed, there wasn't anything about that existence that made it different from other types of cells in his mother's body--all of which were also living. You might argue that Specter's embryo had a different DNA than the mother's, but so did all the bacteria, fungi, and other foreign substances in the mother's body. Like those other foreign substances, "Specter" had none of the personality apparatus needed to claim his life as his own and wouldn't begin to articulate that separate personality until his body had been out of his mother's body for at least six months. This is where the other problem for Brownback comes in. Once Specter or anyone else in our society begins to recognize themselves as a separate person, they are on the road to playing God. Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount that we should have "no care" for ourselves and that we should rely on God for our food, clothing, and everything else. In a highly organized society like ours, we rely on ourselves as a group to create and maintain a set of technologically advanced organizations to create, maintain, and execute the provision of food, clothing, health, recreation, and military protection. Now, we've created a technological apparatus for creating embryos as well. As soon as a person recognizes themselves as a separate being in our society, they are on the road to becoming a part of the technical apparatus that makes us all into gods. This is where Brownback's argument falls apart for our society. As soon as my life becomes "my" life, I start moving toward the day when I am playing god by making decisions on issues like stem cells. At that point, I decide whether embryos are sacred or not and Brownback's god is reduced to cosmic thumb-twiddling.


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