Superman and Utilitarianism

  In 1995, Christopher Reeve tragically injured his spinal cord in a riding accident. The actor, who once portrayed Superman, is a quadriplegic. His life is now entirely dependent. Not only is Reeve unable to eat or wash or dress by himself, he can't even breathe by himself requiring technology and constant supervision to stay alive.   Reeve wants to walk again. Stem cells torn from cloned embryonic humans, he believes, will heal his spine. And so Christopher Reeve has become a vocal advocate of cloning and stem cell research.   On March 5, Reeve testified at the U.S. Senate. Echoing Jeremy Bentham, he made a thoroughly utilitarian argument in favor of cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Reeve said, "Our government is supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number." This is, at best, a naïve and, at worst, a dangerous argument coming from a man in a wheelchair.   Jonathan Imbody, of the Christian Medical Association, pointed this out in a letter to the Washington Times. Imbody wrote, "Sadly, Mr. Reeve did not seem to grasp the grim irony that severely disabled individuals like him would hardly fare well in the utilitarian calculus of anticipated benefit for the most people. Spending limited healthcare resources on intensive and expensive therapies to benefit a few would simply never pass the test. If public policy truly were reduced to 'the greatest good for the greatest number,' racism and exploitation would flourish, eugenics would rule, and the fittest and favored would be released once and for all from the burden of 'useless eaters.'"   Sound cold and calculating? It is! In utilitarianism cold calculations determine life and death. And if this were the utilitarian society Mr. Reeve advocates, he wouldn't be here to make his arguments. He would have been taken off life support, and the millions spent to sustain him would have helped thousands of other people with a better chance of being cured. And if money is to be used for the greatest number of people, medical help wouldn't go to people with spinal cord injuries; it would go to the millions with cancer.   Thankfully we don't live in that kind of utilitarian society. We live in one that still retains the dignity of life assured in the Christian worldview.   As Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops puts it, "Our government is not supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. Totalitarian governments are supposed to do that. Our government is supposed to protect the vulnerable INDIVIDUAL from the rich and powerful who may find it expedient to forget his or her dignity."   So when your neighbors talk about all the emotional arguments by Reeve and others made for embryonic stem cell research, you can explain the irony -- that the people making these arguments wouldn't be around to make them, if we embrace the worldview they advocate, which cheapens human life. The funny thing about the secular worldview, as Mr. Reeve makes plain, is that the people advocating it can't live by it.         Take Action:   Urge your senator to cosponsor the Brownback-Landrieu total cloning ban, S. 1899. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224- 3121 to connect to your state's Senators' offices.   For further reading and information:   Visit the Council for Biotechnology website. To receive the Biotech Policy Update e-newsletter, send your request to   The "Bioethics in the New Century Resource Kit" provides helpful information for understanding the debate.   Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Eerdmans, 1996).   Lynne M. Thompson, "Those Who Would Be King: The Perils of Man-Made Ethics," Physician Magazine, March/April 2002.   Jonathan Imbody, "Utilitarianism is not 'the American way,'" Letter-to-the-Editor, Washington Times, 8 March 2002.   Christopher Reeve's testimony can be read here.


Chuck Colson


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