In case you get tired with the ethical controversy that dogs human embryonic stem cell and ‘cloning’ research, consider just one disease – say, diabetes – and its importance is obvious: 150 million people affected worldwide (a figure likely to double by 2025), including 1.5 million in the UK, where treatment of diabetes and its complications currently consumes 10% of the NHS annual budget.
So why does controversy persist? Because, with the widespread availability of legalised abortion, the emergence of hESC and ‘cloning’ technology has provided a tonic to the floundering pro-life movement, which has switched its focus from the preservation of family to concern for the embryo / foetus. Consequently, it has provided a church-promoting vehicle, which can be anti-science. Advocates of the religious position employ emotive strategies: last year, the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, called for the excommunication of Catholic stem cell researchers, equating the destruction of human embryos to abortion; and President Bush has recently implied that hESC scientists are murderers, and that the use of taxpayers’ money to fund this research effectively renders all citizens complicit in a sinful enterprise. These positions conflict, however, with majority support for hESC research, further undermining the Christian worldview and institutional authority.
This suggests, therefore, that religious leaders welcome and encourage conflict; it provides a platform from which they can preach their message to a largely apathetic, secular populace – and to lobby politicians. So, does pious aversion indicate genuine wariness of the morality of an unproven science, or zealous attempt to maintain and augment the profile of its worldview? Like science, religion is also concerned with the problem of public awareness, mobilising through media portrayal of a moral issue, gaining publicity and highlighting those aspects likely to foster public antipathy, even among the secular, such is the extent of the cultural influence of religion. Hence why this issue is so interesting – and important. Like the evolution vs. creationism issue, this is not just about science; it’s about culture.