Jewish World Review March 18, 2009 / 22 Adar 5769
Stem cell policy shift brings a sinking feeling
By John Kass
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | When President Barack Obama signed his executive order to allow human embryos to be mined for their stem cells in order to help older, more powerful humans, there was much excited applause.
The applause came from so many, their eyes bright, lit as if from within. It came from those who believe in scientific progress as the answer to the problems of the modern world, believing as fervently as any monk on the slopes of Mount Athos believes in the Resurrection of Christ.
In signing the order last week, the president said that the Bush administration, which strictly limited such research, had offered a false choice between science and morality. He said his new order "is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda - and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
There it was. Ideology, a pejorative applied to faith, offered up during Lent by our president.
As a Greek Orthodox Christian, I'm troubled by all of this, as are many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others who are taught by the faiths of our fathers that life is sacred. And I know there are many who belong to these faiths and see nothing wrong with stem-cell research.
But many of us watch in quiet horror as America rationalizes the conversion of life into a medical product to further other lives, as our culture ignores the cost to our humanity.
Proponents of stem cell research dress themselves in pure reason, as a counterweight to what is often unfortunately referred to as religious superstition (Obama's "ideology"), but there is something about the political selling of it that speaks to a salvation of sorts, too, particularly for our loved ones whose bodies would be helped by such research.
Science for the scientists, yes, but perhaps more than that for those who hope such research will provide much-needed cures. So more human embryos are cracked open, the life inside them used to protect us from diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, now stalking the once-youthful but still politically powerful Baby Boomers.
The applause washed over Obama all week, from biotech investors and especially pro-abortion rights groups, because if embryos are a product fit for dissection, it follows they are property, not life. Naturally, establishment media editorialists and political writers praised it, even supposedly neutral news accounts trumpeting this as a victory of light over darkness.
"It's a difficult and delicate balance," said Obama. "And many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose this research. And I understand their concerns and I believe that we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. ..."
He is a gracious man trying to be reasonable, fulfilling a campaign promise. Though I disagree with him, I've always felt the decency in him. But as he spoke, I couldn't help but think of someone else.
The drowning man.
When I was a boy about to go swimming with my friends, I was warned about the drowning man. And just then I knew, with the rapture of scientific certainty, that President Obama was also warned as a boy.
It may have come from his mom, or grandparents, or some camp counselor at the edge of the water, an adult responsible for his safety. The kids knotting up in groups on the shore, sand hot on their feet, bright sunshine overhead, eager to jump in.
We all were warned, each of us, you too. As parents, my wife and I told our boys, and Barack and Michelle most likely have told their girls. All kids lucky enough to grow up and become parents will warn their young if they have even the slightest sense of responsibility.
You stay away from the drowning man.
The drowning man isn't an individual, exactly.
The way I remember things, it was the figure of a man drawn in some first-aid pamphlet of long ago, a dangerous hieroglyph thrashing in the water, threatening those who approached.
The drowning man wasn't evil. He wasn't good. There was no history to him.
His dreams and kind acts didn't matter. His betrayals and bitterness weren't counted against him. If he had any sins, their residue wasn't apparent in his expression. There was no face, at least not one with clearly defined features.
Only a head and arms waving in the water, the drowning man going down.
The grown-ups told us that when you're swimming and you see someone struggling and thrashing, you call for help. You might extend a towel or a shirt as a rope. But you don't go near, because you might get grabbed.
Panicked, the drowning man wants what all life wants, to continue. He can't comprehend that he's pushing you down to push himself up. It's not his fault. He's afraid. He's drowning. He's dying.
But we're all dying, aren't we? And what happens to us, as we take other lives, in order to live?
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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Comments by clicking here.
© 2008, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.