Monday Notes on hESCs@CHOC



Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at UC San Diego, spoke this morning about hESC ethics. His was a probing Q&A format as he tried to get the scientists to think through the pertinent issues. They didn’t say much, but I believe his questions got them thinking. The discussion wasn’t really an “Is hESC research right or wrong?” discussion, but one about reasoning out inconsistencies in logic. It was a fair discussion, except that he said the opposition equates leftover IVF embryos with live children. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Of more concern to me than the fate of a finite number of leftover IVF embryos is who we become as a society if we don’t do the hard work of thoroughly hashing out the ethics. This is where religious voices are vital to the discussion. Unlike Sidney Golub who said he doesn’t like slippery slope arguments, Kalichman gave weight to concerns about where hESC research might lead. I think it is fair to say that proponents invoke their own brand of slippery slopism when they resist all constraints, regulations and/or oversight.

I won’t say much more about Kalichman’s lecture here, except that the ethics discussion once again appears to have progressed in both tone and content. Early in the talk, he warned that what happened in Korea could happen here and he advised the budding hESC researchers to abide by whatever rules govern their work.

Three important points:

  1. In light of advances with iPSCs (induced pluripotent [adult] stem cells), he thinks it is not unreasonable for ethics committees to require that research proposals include a defense of the use of hESCs over iPSCs.
  2. It is too early to conclude that hESCs and iPSCs will be therapeutically interchangable; therefore all types of stem cell research should proceed.
  3. As a proponent of hESC research, he advised students to treat human embryos with respect because they are more than ordinary cells.

A discussion comparing the ethical constraints on hESC researchers to those on journalists ensued. It was kind of funny, as I realized that journalists may be less popular than hESC researchers. Many hESC researchers are interested in curing disease after all … as are many journalists, only our work is focused on curing (or, at least exposing for treatment) societal ills rather than physical ones.

Kalichman mentioned something about journalists not identifying themselves appropriately. This got me thinking more about blogging conferences. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to tell each lecturer at a public or semi-public event that I will be blogging their session from a particular point of view. They should assume that a lecture (especially one sponsored by the National Institutes of Health) delivered to an undefined audience is fair game to be reported on. As a courtesy, a conference host might wish to alert speakers to the presence of media, but I don’t believe it is required of them either. Additionally, in this situation, I introduced myself to the students as a journalist on day one. I have not named any of them, and will not in this or any other venue without their permission. If I request any formal interviews, only then will I discuss with sources the parameters and possible consequences of an interview.

Two side notes:

  1. This morning, I also attended a lecture on Aneuploidies (chromosomal abnormalities) in hESC culture. The significant development from 3 years ago is that there appear to be two types of aneuploidy: one potentially carcinogenic and one that may be a normal and harmless feature of stem cell culture.
  2. Speaking of new developments, I heard on Friday that Hans Keirstead’s technique for culturing highly undifferentiated oligodendrocytes has been replicated. I’ll have to check into it.
[photo hESC cultures, ©cas 2008, Orange, CA]


I’ve gone straight from engaging with pastors to engaging with post-doctoral scientists. What, you ask, do I mean? Well, for the next 10 days, I’ll be at Childrens Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) attending the 5th annual NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) Training Course. I attended three years ago and already noted a significant development. Two of the dozen scientists in attendance are here to learn how to culture hESCs so that they can reprogram adult stem cells into the more versatile pluripotent ones, not because they want to be hESC researchers.

Phil Schwartz was prescient when he stood by his convictions to work with the NIH approved cell lines in the belief that alternatives to destroying new embryos would emerge. He named at least three alternatives this morning: stem cells derived from adult cells, from eggs and from sperm. Of course, I’m not yet sure how interested the students are in all that. Phil will make sure they get a well-rounded introduction to the field. For this tax-payers can be grateful.

I won’t be blogging much from this material, as I’m working on stories for other outlets, but I will try to reserve something for Exploring Intersections. A few of the lecture topics I’m particularly interested in are as follows:
  • IVF
  • Anuploidies
  • Ethics
  • Talking to the Media
  • Stem Cell Patents
  • hESC Culture Secrets
  • Stem Cell Transplantation

Three years ago I met one of my closest California friends through this course. That friend is now a NIH-funded hESC researcher. This morning, when I told a student that I had just come from a pastors conference, she remarked that the two groups were polar opposites. And isn’t that part of our problem? Not only is there a misconception that science and religion must be at odds, but there is also a prevailing wind of public discourse that always frames the “other” as an enemy. I hope to do my little bit to change the direction of the wind. We’ll see. First I’ll have to get past 30 minutes of Sidney Golub talking hESC politics from what I expect to be a calcified point of view.



The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

The Moral Instinct

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s piece, “The Moral Instinct”  from last week’s NY Times Magazine is a nice compliment to Audi’s lecture. It’s a long and interesting, if sometimes predictable, read. In it you’ll learn why Bill Gates may be morally superior to Mother Theresa. That’s just the hook though. Here’s a clip from the conclusion:

“Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. …”

Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism

How does a religious person behave in the public square? Does one do cartwheels across the intersection in order to draw attention to one’s convictions–perhaps knocking people over in the process? Or, does an ethical religious person stand shyly on a corner watching others shape discussion? Or park under a tree and advertise? Perhaps James Dobson speaks your language? According to Time magazine Dobson said Mitt Romney’s “Mormonism” speech was a “magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy.”

Think about Dobson’s words. Religious faith MUST play a role in government and public policy. Whose religious faith? Yours, mine, ours, a mulitplicity of faiths, mine today, someone else’s (Mitt’s) tomorrow? What exactly does he mean and, more importantly, what constitutes religious faith anyway?

Last Friday, I attended a  lecture at UC Irvine in which University of Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi argued that a conscientious religious person ought to shed their faith commitments in the public square. Well, maybe he wasn’t as stark as all that, but he does believe secular reasoning is the only kind appropriate to public discourse.

Audi surprised me on a variety of levels. First, his eloquence was impressive. Second, his thesis was persuasive, if limited. Third, his repeated reference to assisted suicide as an example was either a simple coincidence or confirmation of reports I’ve heard that this topic dominates Ethics discussions at UCI.

Audi set aside church/state and corporate questions, limiting his topic to what individual ethical citizens should bring to public conversation in a pluralistic society. Here’s his outline, with my notes and commentary:

I. Background Assumptions

A. Liberty, equality and neutrality principles.  (Implicit in these assumptions is that religious and non-religious persons and institutions will be treated equally. Religious persons will not be preferred over non-religious [try telling that to the current crop of presidential candidates]).

B. A moral right to “maximal” liberty. (A free democracy should allow as much liberty as possible. For example, it might prohibit child sacrifice, but allow many behaviors that make a majority of citizens uncomfortable.)

II. Standards for Free Expression vs. Standards for Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. Advocacy and voting as subject to stronger ethical constraints than free expression. (He said advocacy, and voting as a kind of advocacy, can be coercive if done on religious grounds. During the Q&A, an attendee offered the teaching of Intelligent Design/Creationsim in public schools as an example of coercive advocacy. Audi agreed without reference to significant differences between the two. Another audience member asked if he was equating coercion with exposure. He didn’t believe so. For example, he said students on a school bus are a captive audience to whatever advertising is displayed there [Planned Parenthood and/or crisis pregnancy center ads]. His argument seems to imply that it would be wrong to vote for a political candidate on religious grounds, but perhaps right to reject a candidate who “advocates” from his or her religion.)

B. Oughts contrasted with rights (Rights don’t exhaust morality. Ethics calls on us to do more than any one has a right to ask us to do. So, while nobody can forbid me from rejecting a presidential candidate because he or she might wear “holy” underwear, or be a closet Muslim, or a theological liberal or a guy who wants Jesus as his vice-president, the ethical thing for me to do would be to vote on non-religious grounds … unless of course I’m voting against a coercive candidate.)

III. Some Major Principles Governing Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. The principle of secular rationale also called the principle of natural reason: citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (e.g., for a vote). (It would be wrong, however, for a citizen to use a secular argument as a cover for a religious one. An ethical person should give the reason they have and act on the reason they give.)

B. Qualifications and basis for the principle

  1. The defeasibility of prima facie obligations (The reason for acting must be sufficient.)
  2. Prima facie obligations are compatible with rights to act otherwise
  3. Secular reasons: not anti-religious, but having independent justificatory power (For example, opposing assisted suicided because “only God has the right to take life” would be inadequate, but opposing it because legalizing assisted suicide would exploit the poor is an adequate reason.)
  4. An adequate reason: one that objectively justifies its object (Sufficient reason doesn’t have to be conclusive, just adequate.)
  5. Excusability: being unjustified is compatible with being excusable (Some people can’t think outside a theological context.)
  6. Non-exclusivity: the principle accomodates religious reasons; allows having only those for expanding liberty; and does not require “privatizing” religion
  7. Basis of the principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support.

C. The principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate   or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support. (Audi suggested challenging a religious individual’s interpretation of their own religion. For example, if a religious citizen really believes in the sovereignty of God, wouldn’t he or she trust that God ordered the world with men and women who can reason through problems together. He believes his two principles are complimentary. [Time did not permit him to go into detail about this principle. He either did not adequately discuss points 5&6 about excusibility and non-exclusivity or my notes don’t reflect his explanation. As a result, I find it difficult to comprehend exactly what role he thinks a person’s ontological and/or religious beliefs should have on their citizenship. Nonetheless, I do find the next section helpful.])

IV. The Wider Question of the Place of Religious Considerations in Public Discourse

A. Judiciousness: ethical sensitivity, prudence, consensus-building, etc.

B. Reciprocity: universalizability and the search for common ground

C. Theo-ethical equilibrium: a reflective equilibrium between religious and secular considerations (The search for equilibrium can refine both one’s theology and one’s perspective.)

D. Civic Voice (The voice we use can be more important than what we say.)

Exploring the Intersections

During the Q&A, one audience member went into a long-winded diatribe that included a salient point about religion as a subclass of ideologies and philosophies. He mentioned Marxism as another. I had been wondering what Audi’s definition of religion encompassed? I asked him. He said that to include such things as Marxism and Scientific Naturalism in the definition is not advisable because, although adherents to these ideologies can be religiously devoted to them, broadening the term too much would extinguish any avenue for discourse. He did, however, agree that non-religious ideologies can be as coercive as religious ones.

I am left to wonder what principles ought to guide non-religious citizens? Do unto others? A Bible verse? Isn’t that fundamentally illogical from his point of view? I wish I had stayed behind to press him on this, but … I was wearing sweat pants and grungy sneakers, and little make-up on the way to a jog. Not exactly the best public face for debating a scholar of superior intellect. 

When I began homeschooling my children some years ago, it was, in part, because of coercion in their public school system. Integral to the “Whole Language” curriculum that had come to us from California was a strong multicultural component. As Thanksgiving neared in my son’s third grade class, readings in Native American literature increased. Included among this reading was a Native American creation story. Additionally, a Native American came in and talked about her religious beliefs and rituals. I was okay with this. Our school system generally did a good job of respecting the varieties of religions that were represented in our community.

But then, as part of the Thanksgiving celebration, the children put on a play, which I attended. In it, the Pilgrims thanked the “Indians” and the “Indians” thanked the Pilgrims. Nobody thanked the Pilgrim’s God. What I witnessed was not a story I recognized. I went to the library and confirmed for myself that the Pilgrim’s faith and clear motive for celebrating Thanksgiving had been edited from this history lesson. I complained to the school principal and was told that it was a separation of church and state issue. The superintendent of schools wisely disagreed. I’m not sure what happened as a result because this situation, along with other academic and social issues that were shaped by dogmatic political ideology, convinced me to withdraw my children from the public school system for several years.

Here is an example of coercion that prioritized a minority religion over the majority one. The example demonstrates the merit in Audi’s principle of natural reason.

Yesterday I attended the afternoon sessions of another seminar at UCI, titled “Politics, Psychology and Ethics.” I heard two European scholars talk about religion and public life. Orla Muldoon, head of the department of Psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, talked about identity and social change in Northern Ireland.

She mentioned the “Good Friday Agreement,” but quickly corrected herself, saying the terminology gave her away as a Catholic. Protestants call it the “Belfast Agreement.” Either way, Muldoon said the agreement codified division by creating two political parties based on conflicting religious indentities. While moderate third parties flourished for a while, these have disappeared and given way to a zero-sum game. Political negotiation is about minimizing loss for self and gain for the opponent. Even those who hold no real religious conviction are shaped by the divisions. They may not identify fully with one side, but are quite sure they don’t want to be identified with the other. Sounds familiar.

Muldoon talked about emotionally charged signifiers. For example, a lily is a Catholic symbol and a poppy is a Protestant one. The symbols are so potent that a Catholic television journalist who refused to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day forfeited her career as a result. For Muldoon, leaving Northern Ireland brought immense relief in that she no longer had to worry about such signifiers. She mentioned the development of a unique Northern Irish identity that rejects polarizing labels, but said that for those who have been traumatized by violence, traditional identities are difficult to abandon. However, the absense of violence is helpful in creating space to negotiate new identities.

I did not take notes on the other speaker, Catarina Kinnvall, a political scientist from Lund University in Sweden. Her talk was titled “Being too (in) tolerant? Radical Islam and the ethics of multiculturalism in Scandanavia.” Kinnvall focused solely on the rise of radical Islam among the youth of Denmark and Sweden. She said Sweden has relied on pluralistic means of accomodating its Muslim immigrants, which marginalizes in its own way, while Denmark has chosen an assimilationist, and some might say annihilationist, approach. Kindvall said it is difficult for her to even find appropriate language to discuss her topic without inflaming passions of both Muslims and those prejudiced against them. She reminded us that most Muslims are not radicals.

I mention these two talks because they highlight where I think we don’t want to go as a nation. And yet, listen to the heightened discourse over religious identity in our own presidential race. Obama claims that there has been a concerted effort to label him a Muslim. This fact alone is deeply troubling. First someone surmises, correctly I’m sure, that our fear of Islam is so great that if he were a Muslim, and a closet one at that, he would be instantly discredited as a candidate. Second, a candidate for the presidency of the United States is willing to inflame religious strife in order to get elected. Third, religious identity is so vital to getting elected that nearly every candidate has to defend (or fake) their own faith commitment. Finally, the non-religious have so demonized people of faith (and we them) that everyone is on the defensive. Do we really want to keep playing a zero-sum game?

I like what Audi said about the sovereignty of God. If people of faith really believe that God is in charge, shouldn’t that belief temper our public discourse? As a writer who sometimes advocates a position, I don’t really think in terms of winning. I think about contributing to a public conversation. Sometimes a rebuttal spurs my thinking further, or changes my mind entirely. Sometimes, my own convictions are reinforced.

Still, I’m left to wonder if Audi wants a better deal for the non-religious or nominally religious. I wonder how and why he limited both his discussion and his definition. That he did reinforces mistrust.

[©cas 208, all rights reserved]