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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Stem Cell Anxiety
distributed 1/19/07 - ©2007

Please be sure to read the announcement at the end of this email
about two upcoming events!

I'm going to go way out on a limb today, and raise a question about a cause which seems to have very broad-based support in the "progressive" community -- stem cells.

If you follow the news about US politics, you know that this has been a lively topic through the last several years. My own US Representative, Diana DeGette (D-CO), has been a leading advocate for legislation which would provide federal funding for scientific research on embryonic stem cells. When her bill sailed through the Republican-controlled House and Senate last year, it gained the distinction of being the only piece of legislation that President Bush has ever vetoed. (Read DeGette's response to the Bush veto.)

In last fall's elections, this rather arcane issue of medical research became the deciding factor in several congressional races -- and it may have been decisive in tipping the control of Congress to the Democratic party.

When the new Congress convened a few weeks ago, Ms. DeGette's stem cell bill was one of the six items that were fast-tracked for votes in the first 100 hours of the House session. It was passed by a wide margin (253-174), it is expected to be passed in the Senate -- and almost certainly will be vetoed again by the President.

Those in favor of stem cell research look to the possibility of miracle cures for problems like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and crippling nerve injuries. Most of those who are opposed to the research object to the use of human embryos as the source of the stem cell lines.

It is a highly polarized debate. Do we want to save lives, and improve the quality of lives? Or is this about killing babies? (Note, though, that the embryos used for stem cells would never become babies. The "discarded embryo" problem is inherent in the technology of many fertility treatments.)

Within the standard framing of the debate, my leanings go along with the majority of people in the US. I find the case for research far more compelling than the one about embryos. But that's not the debate that I want to have.

This very public, very politicized conversation about one possible form of medical therapy troubles my thinking at a very deep level. Here's the eco-justice question that nags at me. How much control, and what sort of control, should humans exercise over the natural world?

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A friend of mine refers to it as one of the "terrible texts" in the Bible for environmental thinking. The often-quoted instruction from Genesis 1:28 say, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

The notion of humanity having controlling power over the rest of creation is deeply troubling -- if not abhorrent -- in most environmental theology. We see the dominion mindset of control and manipulation as one of the sources of our current global crisis. We recognize that dominion creates a qualitative break between our species and the rest of creation, a separation which prevents us from seeing how we are a part of the whole fragile web of life.

So here's the awkward thing about stem cells -- and a whole raft of other medical technologies, too. There is a presumption that there is something tragically wrong about the world, and that all diseases and injuries need to be "fixed." There is a belief that the biological world within our own bodies isn't right, and that we humans should use all our power to find cures for the flaws of creation.

There are similarities in mindset -- although not of technology or consequences -- between work with stem cells and the spreading use of genetic modification. We wise, powerful, technological humans are convinced that we can do better than nature. We can, and we should, use our scientific power to shape the world toward our own benefit. Medical innovations are a vivid way in which we have "subdued" the earth, and one of the ways in which we have filled it to the point of overpopulation.

Stem cell research is widely popular. The fix-it perspective of control and manipulation sits comfortably, even enticingly, within most folk in the US. The bio-technology of stem cell treatments strikes most people as a good and appropriate expression of human power.

I wonder, how do we -- or should we -- draw a dividing line between those medical treatments and other forces of human dominion and control over the natural world? How do we advocate for respectful compliance with natural processes on a large-scale ecological front, when we are so eager to separate ourselves from nature and beat it into submission in the field of health care? There's a very real philosophical and ethical conflict that's not being addressed.

I don't have an easy answer, or even a hard one. I am concerned, though, that no one is talking about that inconsistency. And I worry that, unless we do talk about these complicated questions, the perspectives of dominance over the natural world which are central to health care will have a powerful, negative influence on our ecological thinking.

Now, before you reply with your impassioned response about stem cells, take a moment to note two upcoming events.

  • On Saturday, April 14, 2007, there will be a nationwide rally in favor of strong US action to control global warming. Organizer Bill McKibben writes of "hundreds and hundreds of simultaneous rallies all across America, designed to start pressuring Congress to take decisive action on climate change." This is a great opportunity for congregations and communities to take a political stand. Read more about the event at

  • For our Denver-area friends, on Thursday, April 19, Eco-Justice Ministries is hosting our "first annual" celebration luncheon. We'll be honoring a local congregation and a local individual for their great work, and hearing from the (still new) President of the Iliff School of Theology about the essential connections between religion and environmentalism. It is going to be a great party! Save the date, and let me know if you want to be among the first to receive a personal invitation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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