The Politics of Suffering

Prior to September 11, the defining moment of the Bush presidency had been the president’s decision to limit embryonic stem-cell research. And while that issue has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, it hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s back with a vengeance, and that means it’s time for Christians to understand the facts and what’s at stake in the debate. On October 4, Senator Kerry charged the president with “sacrificing science for ideology and playing politics with people who need cures.” He added that treatments for dreaded diseases “could be right at our fingertips” if we lifted “the stem cell ban.” Along the same lines, a writer in the Baltimore Chronicle accused “opponents of embryonic stem-cell research” of “prolonging the suffering of millions.” He labeled the president, and other opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, as an “obstacle to hope for a scientific breakthrough, a miracle.” Finally, as if in summation, came the death of actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the 1978 film. Reeve, who was left paralyzed after being thrown from a horse a decade ago, was a tireless advocate of embryonic stem-cell research. He even used his appearance on the latest version of the “Superman” story, Smallville, to promote the reversal of the president’s policy. While my thoughts and prayers are with Reeve’s family, it’s simply not the case that the president’s policy is all that stands between people like Reeve and a “miracle.” Someone who knows this is Leon Kass, the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In a Washington Post op-ed Kass wrote that the president’s critics are “distorting” his policy and ignoring the “weighty moral issues involved” in their quest for partisan advantage. For starters, there is no “ban.” The president’s policy affects only embryonic stem cells. There is nothing in the policy that stops researchers from using stem cells obtained elsewhere, like adult stem cells. Second, the policy applies only to research using federal money for embryonic stem-cell research. Private and state money is still available, and Harvard  University has just announced it will clone human embryos. And the federal policy doesn’t prohibit the use of all embryonic stem cells. Federally funded research can be conducted using stem cell lines that were already available in August 2001. As Kass points out, there are enough of these lines “for years of essential basic research.” Worse than the distortion of the president’s policy is the false hope its opponents are spreading. Kass calls it “cruel to suggest that stem-cell-based therapies are ‘at our fingertips.’” According to “our best scientists,” such therapies are “at least several decades” away. But what you will not hear the politicians tell you is that adult stem cells are working now. While the suffering of our fellow citizens and loved ones is heart-breaking, the answer doesn’t lie in “recklessly trampling over [our] most cherished moral ideals,” as Kass put it. Rather it lies in taking full advantages of the research opportunities we have instead of “playing politics with the sick”—because, as Christians need to make clear, false hopes are often the biggest obstacle to real progress.


Chuck Colson


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