Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Brave New World Meets 1984

On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order that allows for federal funding to be used in embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, President Obama and most of the media proclaimed this as a victory, not just for stem cell research advocates, but for science. Alice Park of Time magazine wrote, “The President's decision does much more than expand funding for stem-cell research. It heralds a shift in the government's view of science, ushering in an era that promises to defend science — and the pursuit of potentially useful treatments — against ideology” (Researchers Cheer Obama's Vote for Stem-Cell Science). The president himself said, “It is about ensuring that scientific data [are] never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

President Obama’s words are truly Orwellian. He has rephrased the vocabulary of the discussion over stem cell research so that the debate is not over the sanctity of human life, but over science. Many people (including many scientists) have long objected to embryonic stem cell research because they believe that a human embryo is in fact a human being. As a human being, it has human rights. One should not be able to dispose of a human being simply for the purpose of scientific experimentation. Most Americans are horrified by the evils of human experimentation, such as the Tuskegee Experiment, and do not wish to see that sort of thing continue, no matter how great the scientific gain.

However, with his remarks, President Obama has redefined the debate. According to the president, the debate is not over the sanctity of human life, but over science. So, if you oppose embryonic stem cell research, you are placing ideology over science, or, as he said, you are making decisions based on ideology and not facts. The not so subtle implication is that if you believe in the sanctity of human life, you are an anti-scientific, backwoods, Luddite rube.

In 1984, George Orwell dramatically demonstrates that, if one can control the language and define the vocabulary, one can always win the debate. Language is a powerful tool. If President Obama is successful in redefining the debate over human life in this way, then there will be no debate. No thinking American wants to be anti-science and anti-knowledge. No compassionate person wants to allow an ideology to interfere with scientific discovery if that scientific discovery can improve the lives of thousands, if not millions of people. Most people do not want medical advancements to be hindered by political ideologies. If the debate is framed in those terms, then there is no debate.

However, the President’s remarks—as well as those who support them—reveal a very clear, distinct political ideology. His remarks assume that the belief that a human embryo has human rights is an ideological position rooted in theology and that his belief that unborn babies are not humans is not an ideological position. That is, those who agree with him are non-ideological and those who disagree with him are trying to impose their ideology on scientific discovery.
As Christians, we must remember that nothing in this world is neutral—including science. When it comes to science, all human beings would agree that there are certain types of experimentation that are immoral no matter how much promise they hold. Testing on unwilling live human subjects or killing people for the purpose of scientific discovery is beyond the pale. Therefore, we must remain clear that we are not anti-science, but we are pro-life.

As a side note, in 1984, in the Foreward to his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that we as Americans have escaped Orwell’s horrors of Big Brother. Instead, Huxley’s A Brave New World has come about in our midst. Postman writes, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. . . . Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we ould become a trivial culture. . . . In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

My question to Postman is this: What if both Orwell and Huxley were right?


PaulF said...

Good post Mark. You should send it to the Denver Post if they're still in business. Also, you might want to check out this article by David Limbaugh.

Between false dichotomies and the redefinition of words, it's amazing there's any debate anywhere; but I suppose that's the objective.

Leslie said...

Thank you, Mark, for writing on this subject! It is so encouraging to see pastors willing to instruct the church on such matters.

It is puzzling to me that our tax dollars will be spent on embryonic destruction through experimentation when scientists agree that the pluripotent stem cells show much more promise! It seems ideology lead the decision, not science!

I would still be strongly against it no matter how much medical promise embryonic stem cells showed, it's only that it is all the more appalling to destroy embyos unnecessarily.