17 June 2011

Live Blogging Ted Peters Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

The final plenary session speaker at the Christian Scholars’ Conference is Ted Peters. Peters is a systematic theology professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s task force on genetics, and author of Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research.


Francis Collins is asking a question: In vitro fertilization is OK by more traditions, and we’ve got lots of in vitro embryos sitting around. What do you think about us using them, even if you’re a staunch embryo protection person but want to use the embryos we already have, since they’re already been created? For that matter, and on the other hand, how are embryo protection people being consistent when they say in vitro fertilization is OK?

Peters: Some Catholics do in fact say we should oppose use of in vitro embryos because, in so doing, you participate in the original sin (of creating the embyos artificially?). “I want to say ‘Get a life!’” (?!) He then went on to say that, yes, Francis, that’s a great idea, potentially very ethically helpful, and I think that’s what’s already happening in some places.


Takeaways from Peters:

  1. Respect competing commitments as conscientious (this is a critique of the Vatican calling stem cell researchers “baby killers”)
  2. Understand with empathy the coherent logic of each framework.
  3. Be guided by “faith active in love.” (Gal 5:6)
  4. Take a stand with courage, but without malice toward opponents.


Singapore has a helpful policy: only use young embryos (<14 days), use surplus embryos when possible, or get special permission on a case by case basis. Apparently no one has gone for the last option. He’s making the point that the religious discussion has affected the secular policy.


He’s giving the theological foundations of this framework of beneficence by talking about eschatology and Jesus as healer. Quick survey of stem cell research beliefs in other traditions (he’s flying now–apparently he’s almost out of time): Jews and Muslims are for stem cell research, by and large. How about Christians? He’s going really fast, and his slides only give the groups not their positions. RCs against, Orthodox against, Anglicans and Episcopalians generally for (“to the extent that I can get them [to give me a position]“), … OK, I give up, he’s just going too fast. Presumably he’s written this down somewhere.


A third framework (I’m not sure I’m exactly tracking with his outline): nonmaleficence and beneficence. He’s explaining these with respect to the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite did no harm (nonmaleficence), but the Samaritan did good (beneficence).


I’m continuing to be unimpressed with Peters’ explanations of stem cell science. I’m not following his discussion of chimeras. He gave an example about DNA testing from sperm samples. Totally didn’t follow.


Peters’ point: this anti-Brave New World argument looks like the Vatican argument, but it’s not, it’s a secular philosophical argument.


Leon Kass from U. of Chicago (“That means you know he’s smart”) says we’ve got a slippery slope here, from “Yuck!” to “Oh?” to “Gee Whiz” to “Why not?” This is the anti-playing-God framework, but it came not out of a Christian context but, I guess, a sort of pagan context (appeals to Prometheus, etc.). Brave New World dehumanizes us, Kass says. “What does human mean for Kass? What it really means is family life. Families should have mommies and daddies and children … [and] death is a part of life.”


Those scientists are causing us to “fall into sin,” according to a Der Spiegel article after Dolly. Note the theological language in a secular context.


OK, back to Dr. Polkinghorne’s heart attack: “Suppose we take on of his skin cells … and activate that … and produce a stem cell line with his genome.” Can we do DNA nuclear reprogramming? Scientific researchers generally appreciate the possibility (they find it “appealing”) of making stem cells without destroying an embryo. Apparently it turns out you could form a baby from these cells, which Peters hopes the Vatican doesn’t realize and reverse their position that adult stem cell research is morally permissible.


Another thought is the 14-day position: When you get to the adherence of the uterine wall, that’s when for the first time you’ve got individuation. This happens at roughly 14 days in. This looks like a good candidate for a moral threshold if you’re willing to take your clues from nature. Conservative Catholics who oppose abortion but support stem cell research hold this view.


He’s now taking a shot at John Breck, an Orthodox theologian who makes a claim that the Orthodox Church has “always taught that human life begins at conception.”


The Vatican has done the most thorough job of thinking through the issues of embryo protection, he says. He’s going to walk us through JP2 and Benedict’s thinking: Egg from mother gets penetrated by father’s sperm, creating a unique genome not shared with anyone else. God then imparts a brand-new soul to this fertilized egg, they say. The genome is “crying out for the addition of a spiritual soul”–this was JP2′s theological anthropology. The soul is what gives us dignity, the imago dei, etc. And you cannot violate the dignity of this ensouled person. But notice that this theology was formulated before the abortion controversy, with nothing to do stem cell research. It was applied to the stem cell controversy, but note the differences, including that we’re not talking about a mother’s body in stem cells.


Peters thinks non-compatible shots were being shot across the related parties at each other. He’s giving three bioethical frameworks produced by the ethics board:

  1. Embryo protection
  2. Nature protection
  3. Medical benefits
  4. Professional standards


Peters wants us to pause and ask if Newsweek got the issue right: stem cells research vs. (pro-life people?–he switched the slide).


The ethics committee at Geron had been in place two years before human embryonic stem cells were isolated. Peters was on it. “You may not like what we do, but you can’t deny that we were there.”


He’s showing a Michael West slide now explaining why West is interested in human cloning: “From deep within my soul, I erupted in an explosion of anger; ‘This won’t happen!’ I shouted out loud at the thought of death. This was the most profound experience of my life. I realized it was simply not in my nature to accept death or be defeated by it.”

“Most scientists don’t talk that way,” Peters notes. But he’s “part of mix” when it comes to stem cell cloning.


Scientifically, he’s pointing out, the Dolly controversy was misunderstood. Willmot (sp?) didn’t want to create duplicate animals. Seriously, he’s going really fast, I think not taking the time to explain the science as carefully as the other speakers have (though maybe I’m just experiencing it this way because this is the area I know the least about).


Oh dear: Peters is proposing a thought experiment where Professor Polkinghorne has a heart attack. Could he be treated by foreign stem cells? Of course not.


Scientific preliminaries: We get human embryonic stem cells from a fertilized egg in a petri dish providing totipotent cells with a full complement of the genome. You could make a baby or any kind of tissue out of these cells. Days later we have the blastocyst surrounding … he’s going too fast: here’s a similar diagram from Wikimedia Commons.


These science are promising, he notes, the possibility of a new picture of human well-being and flourishing.


Peters points out that the goal of stem cell research is regenerative medicine, which will apply to a long list of problems plaguing the human body (spinal cord injury, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.).


He’s now showing cartoons showing two disparate viewpoints: one with science running off with the ethicists following from far behind, and the other espousing the opposite view (scientist: “I’m having a hard time getting any work done with all these ethicists hanging around”).


Peters is summarizing Knud Løgstrup and Emmanuel Levinas, both students of Heidegger. I’m getting started slow, so I missed his exact point, but he wants us to keep in mind the difficulty in supposing that science can be an interpretation-less enterprise. I’ll try to keep up better as we go along.


Peters is giving a history of the founding of UC-Berkeley, which was apparently originally named (the town named for the school that would be founded there?) for Bishop Berkeley (another Anglican) who said that science and religion would be harmonious in this great new land (ouch, not yet, huh?).

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