Watching “Nightline” a few days ago, I was pleased to find an expert supporting my contention that religion is at the root of the reason why the United States is falling behind other nations in crucial health care research.
In my “God must be a Buddhist” post I argued that the Western monotheistic religions have more of a problem with absorbing scientific facts into their worldviews than do Eastern faiths such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.
Thus recent breakthroughs in embryonic therapeutic cloning occurred in South Korea, not the United States, because irrational tenets of fundamentalist Christianity have resulted in limits being placed on federal funding of stem cell research.
On the May 24 Nightline program, Ted Koppel interviewed Lee Silver, described as a “genetics professor at Princeton University” (Silver’s official status is Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Affairs). Silver said that the way to make sure U.S. stem cell research has ethical limits is to have research funded by the federal government, with accompanying federal regulations.
He went on to say that the two most important advances in therapeutic cloning have come out of South Korea, though the United States spends far more on research. One reason is that the U.S. has put restrictions on this research, which is leading to private funding and stem cell researchers going to other countries.
Silver said, “Then the research will be conducted basically in Asia, where people don’t have as many problems with this research as Westerners tend to have.”
Koppel interjected: “You were just about to say, and I could see you catching yourself, whether they don’t have the same ethical considerations. You weren’t really going to say that, were you?”
“No, no,” Silver responded. “I don’t think that is correct. I think that we’re seeing different senses of spirituality or ethics in the United States and in Asia because we have very different religious traditions. And I think the research in Asia will be done ethically, but they don’t see human embryos in the same light as we do in America or Europe.”
Fundamentalist Christians in this country are disturbingly ignorant of alternative faiths such as Buddhism. Americans, who are overwhelmingly Christian, tend to think that they have a corner on the market of moral values. So Bush can stand at his presidential podium and spout nonsense about vetoing proposed legislation that would loosen federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research because he is “pro-life.”
No, he isn’t. The Buddhist stem cell researcher in South Korea, Hwang Woo-suk, is pro-life, because he is working to cure diseases that shorten life and reduce the quality of life. Bush is pro-cells in a Petri dish, not pro-life.
Koppel said to Silver that his mind jumps from the term “embryo” to “tiny little creature, soon to become a baby.” Silver set him straight: “We have to understand that when you have an embryo in a Petri dish it cannot possibly become a fetus or a baby. That can only happen if the embryo is placed in a woman’s womb.” And if we don’t want this to occur, he added, we need transparent research funded by the federal government.
In a Korea Times article, “Stem Cell and Buddhism,” I learned that Hwang used to be an atheist until he became a Buddhist about twenty years ago. Hwang says, “I am not versed in the creeds of Buddhism. But when I carry out research, I always check whether they square with the sublime spirit of the Buddha. If I am not sure, I will be unable to continue my work.”
In Buddhism, an early-stage embryo isn’t classified as “life” until it is implanted on the uterine wall. Supposedly this is part of the Buddha’s teachings, which I have suspicions about. Regardless, it makes sense. Much more sense than Bush’s notion that a few cells lying in a Petri dish have more of a claim to life than real live people suffering from diseases that potentially could be cured with therapeutic cloning.
Koppel told Silver that some say umbilical and adult stem cells are as good as embryonic stem cells. “I disagree with that,” Silver said. “An embryonic stem cell has the ability to become every tissue or organ in the body if you can figure out what factors to give it.” Other stem cells don’t have that potential.
Hwang has figured out how to create an embryo’s cells from a patient’s own cells. So when the stem cells are put back into the patient, the patient’s body sees those cells as part of itself and won’t reject them.
That’s beautiful. It’s spiritual. It’s godly. You just need a compassionate sensibility and open mind to recognize that therapeutic cloning is a scientific advance to be embraced, not a sin to be rejected. Fundamentalist Western religions create a divide between humanity and nature that is well, unnatural. Also unreal and unbelievable. These religions posit ethical problems where none exist, and ignore evident affronts to life—such as the diseases that could be cured through advances in embryonic stem cell research.
Silver has written a soon-to-be-published book, “Biotechnology in a Spiritual World.” In a lecture based on the book he notes that Western religions embrace a tight one-to-one linkage between body and soul. This can lead to the view that research on a embryo in a Petri dish is murder. However, “In Eastern cultures, biotechnology is not viewed as a challenge to a master God because no such master is thought to be in charge. Furthermore, Eastern spirits are much more loosely attached to bodies and beyond the reach of any scientist.”
I’m not certain which worldview is correct, but my leanings are strongly in the Eastern direction. It is more scientific and sensible. Western religions make conceptual divisions where none exist in reality. For example, Silver notes that Christianity doesn’t believe plants and animals have souls, though they evidently are alive.
Why is an alive human considered to be completely different spiritually from an alive animal? Why is it all right to genetically modify and clone plants, but not people? Questions like these twist Christian theology into irrational knots, while Buddhism presents more compelling answers.
In the afore-linked Korea Times article, Hwang is quoted as saying: “Cloning is a different way of thinking about the cycle of life and re-birth. It is a Buddhist way of thinking.” The article’s author comments, “He was referring to the developmental plasticity of cells, and their genomic and genetic possibilities can be understood in the context of reincarnation, a central concept in Buddhism.”
Whether or not reincarnation after death is true, there is no doubt that life is continually transforming itself in our bodies at every moment. Therapeutic cloning simply builds on natural processes of renewal and rebirth.
This is easy for a Buddhist to see. I only wish that President Bush and the other Christian fundamentalists had such a clear spiritual vision.