Stem cell research

The dialogue between biotechnology and religion
at the Global Public Affairs Institute

Dan Eramian, Vice President, Communications,
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)

I don't know a better way to start a fight than to bring up politics or religion.

Of course, my organization like other trade groups in Washington, deal in politics every day, but now we're in a fight over spiritual beliefs, cloning and stem cell research.

As many of you know, the chairs are already tossed and the tables are turned over - and the fight is well underway.

This challenge - this debate - is not new - as we all know, it is science's oldest argument.

But to some in the religious community, scientific advances are sometimes an act of outrageous hubris that far exceeds mankind's moral boundaries.

The one consistent criticism that has been leveled at biotech researchers from some religious leaders is that we are attempting to play "God."

Now with all the publicity about animals being cloned we are accused of playing "Noah."

Like it or not, this battle is already joined. Religion and spiritual beliefs seem to be on the rise.

In the United States, more than 75 % of the voting public professes a religious faith.

And around the world, fundamentalist religions continue to grow a good deal faster than more moderate faiths.

At the same time science and technology are racing ahead seemingly faster than our minds can comprehend.

Our challenge is to find a way to ease the tension and the gulf that has developed between thought leaders in the religious community and our industry over the embryonic stem cell issue and the other hot-button issues that are sure to come.

From where we stand today, the road ahead seems to be all uphill.

Consider, for example, that the U.S. Senate may soon debate a bill introduced by Senator Brownback of Kansas, which outlaws and criminalizes all cloning - even so-called therapeutic cloning - for medical research regardless of the potential benefits.

It is the first attempt of which I am aware where Congressional leaders have tried to put the brakes on biomedical research.

Scientists in the U.S. are being accused by radical anti-abortionists of starting human embryo farms, and killing them for "experimentation."

That all this is happening in the United States, the world leader in developing biotechnology, is even more significant.

That has happened partly because the U.S. government pumps millions of dollars into basic research at the N.I.H.

Our largest pharmaceutical companies - as you know - have continued to partner with biotechnology companies to develop new drugs based on this science.

They look to us to help add to their drug pipelines.

And suddenly, in all the news outlets in the U.S. the words "clone" and "cloning" appear, and some people become angry.

How negatively is that word perceived?

Here's how negatively: very shortly, the latest Star Wars movie will come to thousands of theaters around the world.

The noble Jedi knights will be fighting a new menace - the title: "Attack of the Clones".

But even without cloning as an issue - and regardless of how the U.S. Senate finally votes on the ban, it is inevitable that biomedical researchers will continue to play "bumper-cars," with some religions on future issues especially those where science is perceived as going outside the bounds that God intended us to stay in.

Germ line therapy and anything that goes near the abortion issue are lightning strikes in a dry forest in U.S. politics.

Don't you think it is a delicious and puzzling irony that in the United States our voters and opinion leaders have both a fanatic fascination with new/gee-whiz technology and an equally strong commitment to fundamental religious traditions?

I believe that out of that seeming dichotomy, we can build some bridges of mutual understanding.

Let's look at some history.

The stem cell issue is not the first time BIO and biotech and religion have had their differences in the U.S.A.

In 1995 our industry in the U.S. was hit with a petition from over 200 religious leaders to the U.S. government asking for a ban on gene patents.

The Joint Appeal Against Human and Animal Patenting challenged our intellectual property rights in newly developed genetic processes and materials.

There were a series of nasty exchanges in the press.

But we made an important decision, we decided to engage them.

We met face to face with a dozen members of the church to discuss our mutual positions - and mutual misunderstandings.

I don't say we changed each other's minds, but I at least came away with a clearer idea of how deeply they objected to the news headlines our industry and scientific breakthroughs generated.

Stories entitled - "Now we have nature's instructions for life," or "we have found the fountain of youth," or "our scientific breakthrough can change Man's destiny," cause religious leaders great discomfort. "God is in charge" they said to me, "not scientists."

Perhaps we are the victims of our own expectations and public relations efforts.

They learned from me however, that biotech researchers do not take a pair of tweezers, pull out people's actual genes and run down to the local patent office.

But their bottom line is: they do not want us playing God -- anymore than we ourselves would ever wish to play God -- but I think I can see even further into why they are so stringent in their challenges to biotechnology.

They really don't want us playing Noah either.

That was apparent, in 1997, when Dolly suddenly appeared on the scene in Scotland.

This event seemed to undermine an entire prior preaching that Noah, - guided by God - had to lead all the animals, two by two, into the ark, to save them -- and life itself -- from disaster.

The cloning of Dolly came to suggest -- too graphically -- that from now on, only one of every species needs to board the ark, so long as Noah himself is a qualified biogeneticist.

Such a vision - a nightmare, to many religious believers - was no longer an abstraction, but suddenly here, in the flesh, while ahead the possibility of human cloning seems even closer.

Obviously there are many issues in play over the viability, utility, and desirability of embryonic stem cell research, including advocacy of the right to life of the unborn.

Some in the religious community see all of this cloning research as mortal men playing misguided Noahs.

And to put their case in the extreme: what life forms or new monsters might accidentally exit the ark?

But here's where I believe there is way we just might work together.

While we often speak of "science vs. religion" as if each were a monolithic entity, this is not the case.

This year, BIO initiated a new series of dialogues, engagements if you will, with religious leaders from a wide cross-section of faiths.

We invited Catholics who adamantly opposed even using therapeutic cloning research, and Jewish leaders who supported it.

We brought to the table a Muslim leader, a Greek Orthodox bishop, Baptist and Methodist ministers, a Hindu scientist and others.

It seemed like everyone had a different opinion when "life" began and the "status" of an embryo.

No consensus on those firebrand issues emerged from these congenial meetings, but we didn't expect one.

Neither science nor religion can offer a definitive "truth."

Science and religion do offer pathways to hope. Science through exploration of the physical world and religion through the metaphysical.

Most people, and certainly most successful cultures, look to both ways for finding solutions to humanity's problems.

If either should ever "triumph" and completely repress or ignore completely the other, it would be a tragic setback for humanity.

What we got out of our meetings - and what forms the first, simplest foundation for mutual understanding is that we both know what is good about biomedical research: it saves and improves human lives.

We discovered the powerful ethical ideas and concepts we shared in common, a desire to help mankind be better.

But, scientists need to listen to individual and collective ethical concerns and respect these religious feelings, no matter how much they may doubt the factual bases of those beliefs.

And despite the explosion of new knowledge generated by scientific discoveries in the last century, the desire by most cultures to believe in religious and moral principals has not abated - all current evidence shows it has even accelerated.

But, science must also be respected, not only for the solutions we can bring through practical applications, but as a system of knowledge and discovery.

If we are to meet in the middle, biotechnology should be judged by the results of its research that achieves that commonly desired result - the reduction of human misery.

Religion must allow science to proceed with experimentation, within the ethical limits that the scientific community itself has proven willing to set.

If both sides work hard - bridges can be built.

We will not win over all religious leaders - but we will win the support and acceptance of the right religious leaders - those who seek - as Buddha described it - "the middle way."

The absolutist approach of the Brownback bill which calls for a ban on both reproductive cloning as well as therapeutic cloning is an example of what happens when one side takes an all-or-nothing, my way or no way approach.

Let me conclude, Edmond O. Wilson in his book Consilience wrote, "Science faces - in ethics and religion - its most interesting and possibly humbling challenge. . . while religion must somehow incorporate the discoveries of science to retain credibility."

He suggests that the way to ease the tension between science and religion, ". . .demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual vigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

BIO has made a commitment that our dialogue with religious leaders will be an ongoing program.

Even that achievement - to continue the dialogue - is a significant step along the road.... A road we all travel together.

Thank you.