We're missing morality on stem cells

Presidents, pollsters, pundits and anyone else wrestling with the stem-cell-research issue would do well to get a copy of Harvey Cox’s recent book, When Jesus Came to Harvard. In this academic memoir, the Harvard professor recounts an undergraduate course he taught from 1982 to 2002 that explored moral reasoning and the making of moral choices. Provocatively, he used the teachings of Jesus Christ to challenge Harvard’s students to think more deeply about issues involving morality.Presidents, pollsters, pundits and anyone else wrestling with the stem-cell-research issue would do well to get a copy of Harvey Cox’s recent book, When Jesus Came to Harvard.

In this academic memoir, the Harvard professor recounts an undergraduate course he taught from 1982 to 2002 that explored moral reasoning and the making of moral choices. Provocatively, he used the teachings of Jesus Christ to challenge Harvard’s students to think more deeply about issues involving morality.

Cox contends that his course transcended the simplistic question of “What would Jesus do?” The Harvard Divinity School theologian, who affectionately thinks of Jesus most often as a “friend,” believes that it’s not always realistic to try to deduce exactly what Jesus would think about modern issues such as stem-cell research or cloning. But Cox did teach his students that they could adapt Jesus’s rabbinical style of teaching and discussion to identify the moral concerns at stake in any issue and move toward responsible actions in response to those concerns.

Part of Cox’s prescription for making moral choices is being acted out. Cox stresses the importance of narrative and storytelling to the identification of issues as being about morality. Without stories, Cox would reason, the stem-cell controversy might be seen simply as a debate over science or funding for research. But hearing the moving stories at a presidential press conference of the 21 families who have “adopted” human embryos makes us think about the issue as fundamentally moral. The personal testimonies of Christopher Reeve’s and Ronald Reagan’s family members similarly help us understand that this issue is first and foremost about doing the right thing.

But aside from getting a single test grade of A for stem-cell storytelling, America probably wouldn’t yet pass Cox’s course. We haven’t even begun to complete some basic assignments that the professor says are essential to sorting out disagreements about moral choices. First, we must agree on some basic facts about stem-cell research. Then, we must understand whether arguments about stem-cell research are consistent, coherent and logical. Third, we must understand how loyalties — to family, party, gender and so forth — influence our thinking about the morality of stem-cell research.

Some recent polling by the Gallup organization illustrates the importance of loyalties to the formation of opinions about stem-cell research. Gallup reports that 60 percent of Americans believe that “medical research using stem cells from human embryos” is “morally acceptable.” But there is a huge divide in Republican and Democratic responses. Seventy-two percent of Democrats say that embryonic-stem-cell research is morally acceptable, while only 49 percent of Republicans concur. In a classroom setting, Professor Cox would probe such a finding, asking Democrats and Republicans to think about the factors that are formative in their opinions. “Is partisanship or morality at the root of your opinions?” he would ask.

Gallup is to be commended for taking a more purposeful and systematic approach to understanding the stem-cell debate in its moral context. Few other public polls have done that. Last June, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll question acknowledged that opponents of embryonic-stem-cell research “say that it crosses an ethical line by using cells from potentially viable human embryos.” But aside from that poll and the aforementioned Gallup research, pollsters have not presented the stem-cell issue explicitly in its moral context.

Even conservative groups seem to be ready to exorcise moral concerns from the stem-cell debate. When presented recent poll results from Republican pollster David Winston showing widespread GOP support for stem-cell research, some conservatives responded that the polls didn’t satisfactorily introduce the additional notion of “federal funding” for the research. These amoral pundits seemed entirely happy to concede morality in favor of fiscal policy.

Unless America more fully defines, understands and debates the stem-cell issue as an unambiguously moral choice, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever get to a morally defensible policy.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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