STEM CELL RESEARCH AND MEDICAL HISTORY | 2001-07-21
As a boy I was fascinated with the study of the history of medicine. I saw that every step in medical progress was held back by the Medical Authorities. Every time a researcher found a treatment that WORKED, the medical faculties in the old days would fight him every inch of the way.
So when I got to the university and ran into exactly the same situation with social science professors today, I was ready for it.
Other constant villains of medical history were priests and preachers. Every time a researcher found a way to save lives or end suffering, the churches denounced him from the pulpit. And every time, the human cost was stupendous.
Lady Mary W. Montague was an early eighteenth century Englishwoman. She was beautiful until she contracted smallpox, which destroyed her looks by scarring, as it routinely did.
On a visit to Turkey, Lady Montague encountered a primitive but effective form of what we now call vaccination against smallpox. She brought this anti-smallpox treatment back to England with her. It was highly effective and saved the looks and lives of thousands of people.
But Lady Mary ended up being sorry she did all that good. The pulpit viciously attacked her. Preachers quoted the Bible about how putting germs in the human body was playing God and desecrating something built by God, and so forth.
We all know how medical progress was held back by the churches' campaign against dissection.
The churches said that doctors were playing God by presuming to dishonor dead bodies, which were "the temple of the soul". Once again they managed to hold back medical progress and ended up being the villains of the piece.
As a boy, I saw all this as Good versus Evil. To me the preachers and professors were Evil and the medical pioneers were the heroes. But as one matures one can see that a person can be terribly wrong without being evil.
On May 12, 2001, in FRANCE -- THE BOY IN THE BUBBLE, I showed how a little French boy's life was saved by using human embryos. I pointed out that French law prohibited the use of those cells to save him, but when France was faced with a real choice between a living boy and the theoretical humanity of cells, the law collapsed instantly.
Something similar happened in another case. Twelve years ago an only child was dying, and had to have a transplant from a sibling to survive. So the parents had another child to save the first one. The operation did the second child little harm, both children are fine, and fifteen years later the parents' courage is universally praised.
When they decided to have the new child, the parents were attacked for "playing God." A lot of people who claimed they were pro-life made threats on the parents' lives. There were demonstrations and denunciations. Like the case against dissection, that seems very strange today.
Right now the theological battle against using human stem cells for helping people is much the same. Stem cells have no feelings, but using them seems a violation of scripture to Bible literalists and to the pope. But if those cells can actually help real, living and feeling people, and the only argument against it is that it shouldn't be done because it is playing God, we are in another battle that the theological side must lose.
In every battle like this in medical history, the theological side has managed to block progress and destroy millions of lives. Those theologians are all villains of history, right along with the old medical Authorities. Once again the fight will do untold damage to serious Christianity.
St. Paul warned us that "the word kills." In this case it is literally true.
If stem cells are used to bring Alzheimer's and stroke patients back to life and crippled people back on their feet, serious religion is going to get hurt again. Many people who suffered in the meantime will point to the precious time wasted in the predictable and tragic battle with religious people on this issue.
As in the case of dissection, smallpox vaccination and hundreds of other examples, churches will admit eventually their side was wrong -- again.
History will say, once again, that the Bible was used to block medical progress as long as possible. Once again, because of this routine roadblock, lives were lost and suffering was vastly increased.
This does not make the theological people evil. But it makes them look ignorant and blind. It hurts people and it hurts religion.
That is how the battle against stem cell research is almost certain to turn out. I hope that a large number of conservatives do what we do best, and take a lesson from history.