Stem Cell Wars: The Cultural and Ideological Bases

Jeffrey E. Horvitz


Why has stem cell research been singled out of many stunning advances in this, the Golden Age of biology and medicine? Why is there such a tempest in a Petri dish?

The stem cell fight is a footnote to what looks to be a lengthy period of Wars of Religion – like the 16th century – which will go on for decades. The conflict is also a manifestation of a collision of ideological themes – themes with very long histories in America.

In this, the 21st century’s Wars of Religion, there are two battle fronts. The first is being fought in the mountains of Afghanistan, the deserts of Iraq, the subways in London, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan. These are the wars between Islam and most of the world’s major religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism.

The second front is a clash between Christian Fundamentalism and Secular Humanism. In America this philosophical clash is being fought in hospitals, university labs, the halls of Congress, and in schools.

These are cultural wars, first and foremost.


Science and technology have often clashed with religion, but this time is different. In the 17th century, the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo Galilei until he recanted his evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. It was a matter of time, albeit a long time, before the facts of science overcame the dogma of religion.

But the main ideological camps that have seized upon stem cell research as a cause celebre are of a different kind. These disputes are not about what is “true”; they are disputes about the nature of Man and what is special about being human. Because the facts themselves are not at issue no amount of scientific research, no experimental evidence, no objective data, will convince either side.


The Stem Cell Wars are also about different conceptions of utopia. On the one hand are the Technological Utopians who believe that science and technology are the best hope for mankind. These advocates believe that science and technology form the path to a better world. Most Americans believe this. On the other hand are the Theological Utopians who believe that true utopia was the Garden of Eden, a state of Holy Grace, a state of innocence and bliss. And, there can be no utopia without the sanctification of God’s most glorious achievement – human life, man in God’s image. Many Americans believe this too. The stem cell debate puts these beliefs into irreconcilable opposition.

During the Industrial Revolution, by the second half of the 19th century technological progress in Europe and America was rapidly accelerating. The benefits were found in increasing prosperity; consequently life span and quality of life were improving at rates never before seen, and this supported the view that science was synonymous with progress.

In the early part of the 20th century Technological Utopianism aligned with a belief that science would be the salvation of mankind leading to a utopian world of comfort and peace. This intellectual fantasy created an intellectual exuberance in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union and the Western world, including the United States. The two World Wars shattered the hopes of the Technological Utopians as technology could be used for great good or greater evil.

By the early 1950’s popular American culture had once again embraced a Technological Utopian hope, capturing the public’s imagination, and reaching an apogee with man’s first walk on the moon. Man would triumph over nature and all would be well.

The global reality never matched the promise; billions of people are still sick, poor, and at war. Therefore, to Theological Utopians, a utopian vision based on sacred morality is more compelling than the promise offered up by science and technology, and this plays a role in their skepticism of unrestricted stem cell research.


Another part of the Stem Cell Wars story is whether God is revealed through Nature or sacred text. Will this revelation be from observation and inference, e.g., inferring God from the natural world, or will it be from direct access to God’s Word, the literalism of the Bible, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon? In other words, can we truly know the essence of life from biology or only through scriptures?

In 1925, in a small courtroom in Tennessee played out the most public of the 20th centuries Science-versus-Religion battles, where Creationism clashed with Darwinism for the hearts and minds of the public on a field of battle so peculiarly American – a courtroom. These skirmishes persist today as with the Dover Pennsylvania Board of Education, and more grandly the Board of Education in the State of Kansas.

There is little common ground between Creationists and almost the entirety of scientific knowledge, ranging from astrophysics to molecular biology. For stem cell research this is yet another irreconcilable difference.


As early as the 18th century, Alexis De Tocqueville, that most astute French observer of America, noted that American’s were particularly religious, but in a very decentralized, personal, and moral way, quite unlike Europe. At present about a quarter of all Americans identify themselves as unaffiliated Evangelical Christians. More like the Middle East, where religion is part of the social and political fabric of society, and unlike Europe where it is not, America entangles politics, science, morality, and religion. Factions that are only loosely affiliated through their religious beliefs – they are not directed by central religious authority such as the Vatican – are powerful political forces that actively influence policy-makers.

The Terry Schiavo case is a prime example where even the orthodox Jew, Senator Joseph Lieberman was willing to weigh-in in favor of life support via Federal intervention. Like the Scopes trial, the Schiavo case was fought in a courtroom.

The political legitimacy of positions both for and against the science of stem cell research is claimed through morality cloaked in religion. In a sense, Right makes Might.


Mainstream American theology is very troubled by those little stem cells. The Catholic Church is unequivocal. The American Christian Right is also unequivocal. “Life”- in particular human life – is the highest form of God’s work and creation. It must be respected and sanctified. But, in today’s world of complex biology “life” is like pornography – you know it when you see it.

When thinking about stem cells, the average person is completely lost. The difference between an embryo and a fetus is not understood. Depending on the context, stem cell research can be either perfectly acceptable medical treatment or an act of grave moral depravity. Those vehemently opposed to stem cell research see a group of mad scientists, like H.G. Wells’, The Island of Doctor Moreau, creating half-man, half-animal chimeras, while advocates of unfettered stem cell research see cures for millions afflicted with incurable disease.

The majority of scientists appear to be in favor of stem cell research. Proponents of stem cell research like to portray their opponents as backwoods demagogues, but the most vocal opponents of stem cell research are intelligent and articulate, even if not well-grounded in the science. This is understandable since the argument does not hinge on facts.

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, an opponent of the research, is eloquent and compelling. It is no coincidence that he is from the same state that has twice elected, then removed, a Creationist Board of Education. Kansas is the heartland of America more in the mold of the early Colonists than today’s Blue State inhabitants on both coasts.

Dorothy Gale was so wrong in saying, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”. Oh, yes we are.

Even harder to dismiss is Pope Benedict XVI, a particularly intellectual Pope, officially expressing the grave reservations of the Catholic Church as to stem cell research which has had a stultifying effect on research in Catholic Europe.


Eventually this controversy will be forgotten – if and when the promised medical benefits become reality. While the debate rages, often as proxy for bigger issues, the technological hurdles are falling and the science is advancing. However, the facts of science will not sweep away the theological concerns – it will be the practical benefits that make these theological concerns subordinate. American’s are a practical people, and they will put aside fundamentalist misgivings if they can be shown that most American of proofs: RESULTS.

Jeffrey E. Horvitz
October 19, 2006



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