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When faith trumps reason:
the dishonest veto of stem cell research

By George A. Ricker

The photo op so carefully arranged by the Bush Administration after the president’s first veto points up the basic dishonesty of the fundamentalist minority in the debate over stem cell research.

There was the president, surrounded by various young children and their parents, declaring, in his first-ever veto message, “These boys and girls are not spare parts.”

It was a sure applause line. The boys and girls to whom he referred were the children gathered for the veto message. All of them are the result of in vitro fertilization with frozen embryos not used by the original parents and subsequently “adopted” by others.

However, the statement had nothing to do with the legislation Bush had just vetoed. It was dishonest and misleading, as was his claim that “Each of these human embryos…” that would be destroyed for the research that would have been funded by the bill “…is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value.”

Unfortunately for Bush’s rhetoric, the facts don’t support his claims.

Some inconvenient facts

Currently there are about 400,000 unused frozen embryos in storage facilities at various fertility clinics around the U.S. At last count, 128 embryos had actually been “adopted” and subsequently born.

Remember that the embryos in question are about five days old. They are described in medical terms as blastocysts. And virtually all 400,000 of those embryos will ultimately be destroyed without serving any useful purpose.

Let’s be clear about this. We are not talking about the destruction of human embryos that may some day become complete human beings. We are not talking about anything that would prevent the adoption of frozen embryos and thus might lead to the birth of more children like those who were present for Bush’s veto message.

As a matter of fact, the legislation Bush vetoed stated specifically that federal funding would be allowed only for research using frozen embryos otherwise headed for the scrap heap.

As faith trumps reason

Those are the facts of the case. But facts don’t matter when faith trumps reason. Faith doesn’t concern itself with evidence or factual argument. Faith doesn’t care what makes sense. Faith has no interest in the advancement of science or medicine or the potential enhancement of human life through medical research.

Faith—and we are speaking here specifically of religious faith—only cares about upholding the dogma of religion. Reason has nothing to do with such concerns.

Perhaps no issue more clearly illustrates the damage done when religious faith becomes the basis for public policy than the flap over funding for stem cell research. Thoughtful people may disagree on the potential usefulness of the research. However, there can be no disagreement that the ethical concerns voiced in Bush’s veto message are bogus.

Only religious faith could claim that it is better to leave 400,000 unused frozen embryos in cryogenic storage until they are discarded than it is to make use of that resource to see whether the stem cells harvested from those embryos can be used to find therapies and possible cures for some of the most devastating illnesses suffered by human beings.

What of the “inherent dignity and matchless value” of the people who might actually be helped by the research?

It is a strange morality indeed that places greater value on 5-day-old human embryos, which will never be anything more, than on walking, talking human beings.

Moral incoherence

This is the sort of “moral” thinking that leaves rational people scratching their heads. And let it be noted there are many among the religious who do not agree with Bush’s faith-based reasoning on this issue. A majority in both houses of Congress supported this legislation, including many of the leaders in the president’s own party. A majority of the American people, according to the latest opinion polls, also support it.

Faith argues we would be “…taking innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefit for others.” Reason tells us we would be taking nothing because the embryos in question never will become human beings, innocent or otherwise.

Faith claims we would be crossing “…a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.” Reason tells us whatever moral Rubicon may exist in the question of stem cell research was crossed long ago. Make no mistake about that. Stem cell research, using discarded embryos, is going on now. It’s just that federal funding through the National Institutes of Health would allow faster progress.

Faith declares it is wrong to use “taxpayer funds” to pursue a policy that some taxpayers may find morally reprehensible. Reason tells us we do that all the time. Many Americans moral sensibilities are outraged by capital punishment, by the war in Iraq and by other policies of our government. However, no funds for those purposes have been vetoed on moral grounds.

The words are those of the president. The rationale is that of faith. It is a rationale that defies common sense. It is a rationale that is inherently irrational.

A common theme

Bush’s rationale for vetoing the stem cell bill epitomizes the faith-based reasoning his administration has used on many issues.

Time after time, representatives of this administration have ignored science, distorted evidence and substituted slogans and rhetoric for reasoned discourse. Partly, this is the disease of modern politics in the United States. But the marriage between the Bush White House and the Religious Right has only exacerbated the problem.

One of Bush’s first acts as president was to reinstate a ban on aid to international family planning services that also provide information about abortions. This “global gag order” had been rescinded by President Bill Clinton during his administration.

Bush claimed the “gag order” prevented U.S. tax dollars from being used for abortions. The truth is otherwise. The upshot of the policy, according to the family planning groups affected by the ban, has been that more, not less, women have obtained abortions. As birth control information is not made available, unwanted pregnancies increase. Abortion always has been one of the chief methods for dealing with such pregnancies.

That the consequence of rescinding the gag order would be an increase, and not a decrease, in abortions was entirely predictable from any rational evaluation of the evidence. One of the best ways to reduce the number of abortions is to increase the access of women to family planning and birth control services. But such efforts run counter to the religious beliefs of the Religious Right. Thus the evidence is ignored and policy is grounded on those beliefs instead.

Once again, faith trumps reason.


It is damaging to the public health and dangerous to our national survival to eschew reason for faith and to make scientific findings subordinate to religious opinions. Faith may trump reason in the political hothouse that is the United States at the beginning of the 21st century but it works to our disadvantage in the world in which we live.

No other modern industrial state endorses official religiosity to the extent we do. An American scientist of some note, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, wondered in an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times two years ago whether a society in which more people believe in the Devil than in the theory of evolution can maintain its scientific and technological edge.

The answer seems to be that we can’t.

But a more disturbing question is this.

Is the mightiest nuclear arsenal in the world now in the control of a political leader who honestly believes, as a matter of faith, the world will end in a fiery Armageddon?

Against the backdrop of such concerns, the stem cell debate seems a trifling matter. Yet, the Bush administration’s rationale in vetoing the legislation that would have expanded federal funding for stem cell research suggests a mindset in which faith trumps reason.

It is a mindset that holds great danger for America and for the world.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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