Crikey’s editorial on stem cell research rather poetically expressed the common view of biotechnology presented on the secular-humanist side in the current debate. What are the abstractions of moral philosophy, compared to the tangible gains of a happy couple with a new baby?

Which illustrates exactly the problem those of us opposed to much of the current biotech push from a secular and atheist perspective. Bob Phelps had a good go in the Oz yesterday – the Oz as usual opening its pages to the left only when it’s attacking another part of the left – but he stuck largely to the manifold problems that occur with cloning processes.

More urgent is to outline the secular argument against the industrial production and destruction of human life, even if such processes could be made vastly more successful.

The short argument to that would be that the powers of science have become so transformative that they have now come into contradiction with the fundamental material supports that make up our culture or any imaginable human culture.

Culture – the framework within which life has meaning – only survives if we accord to the human a special status, including phenomena, like embryonic stem cells, that are not beings or persons, but are “of-the-human” nevertheless.

The religious idea that a distinct stem cell is somehow wronged by its creation and destruction is something I regard as silly. But the effect on the culture overall, of making life an industrial product, is something quite capable of undermining the ground on which meaning is built.

People sense this when they think about something like the genetic modification of future children, the sale of kidneys for live organ transplant, or the creation of a new child as a marrow donor for a very ill older sibling.

All of these situations are usually individually heart-rending – but collectively their effect on what our idea of being human is, and whether it becomes one product among many, may be corrosive. Humanity becomes a means rather than an end.

Such an argument seems strange, but only because we’ve never faced anything like it before – the point at which we could, over future decades, create a comprehensively post-human world. It’s worth listening to the deep disquiet one feels about these things and then imagine a future where that is general. A world divided between genetically designed perfect specimens and living organ banks, made in pursuit of “transcending” our human limits, may lead us to build a hell in heaven’s despite.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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