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Lies, damned lies and science

3/14/2014

“Science in the modern world has many uses, its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich. The word “kleptomania” is a vulgar example of what I mean.” – G. K. Chesterton

The appeal for science to inform us on matters of public policy from some quarters is often very selective and when pressed oftentimes ends up being the schoolboy philosophy of scientism which should never be confused with actual science. Furthermore, although science can tell us that substance X is poisonous, it does not speak to whether we ought not to put X in someone’s drink. The internal logic of science and technology, there is always more to discover and improve, should never be divorced from traditional and universal morality. As C.S. Lewis reminded us in The Abolition of Man, eschewing traditional morality in the face of inexorable scientific and technological advancement will eventually lead to the demise (or abolition) of man.

If science were allowed into the abortion or in virto fertilization debates, both discussions would be done and dusted. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood recently said that when life begins is not “really relevant” to the abortion debate. Thankfully, we have examples in law where science is used and not ignored like it was in Roe v Wade. In Davis v. Davis (Tennessee Supreme Court), the defendant Mary Davis and her former husband Junior Davis were at odds over what should be done with seven frozen embryos that were being kept for future implantation in light of their divorce. The couple had resorted to in vitro fertilization during their marriage since Mrs. Davis was infertile. Mrs. Davis saw the embryos as her children and asked the court to award her custody so that they could be implanted. Mr. Davis opposed the transfer and argued that it would impose unwanted parenthood on him.

The judge considered when life begins to be the central issue and asked three questions: “Are the embryos human?”; “Does a difference exist between a pre-embryo and an embryo?”; and “Are the embryos beings … [or] property that may become human beings?” The court found that the embryos were in fact human. It based the decision on science not the religious prejudices of some bible thumping, right-wing, homophobic bigot (love how that rolls off the tongue!). The four expert witnesses – Dr. King (a specialist in infertility/reproductive endocrinology), Dr. Shivers (an embryologist), Professor Lejeune (a geneticist) and Professor Robertson – all agreed that embryos were human. Their testimonies also square with the Keith Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, authors of one of the most widely used embryology texts, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. A human embryo is not something different in kind from a human being, like a rock, or a potato, or a rhinoceros. A human embryo is a human individual in the earliest stage of his or her natural development.

At the end of the day, science (and every other discipline) is practised by fallen human beings who may be pressured to fudge findings or flat out lie for political reasons. Jeremiah described our quandary best when he wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Evidence of this deceit came a few years after Davis v Davis when Professor Lee Silver from the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton wrote the following, “I’ll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific.” He went on, “The term pre-embryo is useful in the political arena – where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo (now called pre-embryo) experimentation – as well as in the confines of a doctor’s office, where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients. “Don’t worry,” a doctor might say, “it’s only pre-embryos we’re manipulating or freezing. They won’t turn into real human embryos until after we’ve put them back into your body.”

Chalk up one for lies, damned lies and science.

Adrian Sobers

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