“As a matter of fact, religion should have no effect on politics,” California celebrity Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told George Stephanopoulos recently on ABC. “If you make a decision, it should not be based on your religious views. It should be based on–what is it–how can you represent the people of California the best possible way.”
Religious conservatives were predictably outraged by the glitzy Republican’s comments. (Few public officials have had the audacity to dismiss religious values in this broadly religious nation outright.) However, judging by the man’s history, both inside and outside politics, the real scandal would have been if Schwarzenegger had said he bases his decisions on his Catholic faith.
After all, despite his stirring personal story of coming to America from Austria and reaching the top in bodybuilding, the movie industry, and now politics, this is a man who manifestly has lived largely by the cult of the self. Schwarzenegger admits he has treated women poorly (to put it delicately). He admits he took steroids to help produce those bulging muscles (and gain an unfair competitive advantage over those who didn’t) on his way to multiple Mr. Olympia titles. And let’s not forget all those violent movies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger says he does not base his decisions on a religious code. I believe him.
Schwarzenegger’s decisions since becoming governor last year provide more evidence of his devotion to the cult of the self. He backed Proposition 71, a voter-approved initiative to provide $3 billion in state funds for biotech firms to produce human embryos for medical research to find cures to help the rest of us.
What supporters don’t talk much about are the morally dubious means to these supposedly noble–and overhyped–ends. Both this referendum and a stem-cell research bill approved in New Jersey involve cloning–producing human embryos that are exact physical duplicates of existing people–to harvest their organs and tissues for medical research and possible cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and M.S.
Leave aside the chilling parallels with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. That, after all, was a work of fiction. What about the parallels with Nazi Germany? Only 60 years after the end of World War II, have we already forgotten the grisly work of the Nazi doctors, who justified their tortures of fellow human beings by classifying them as somehow subhuman?
This happened, for example, at the Dachau death camp, when Jewish prisoners (called in this instance “selectees”) were made to undergo deadly experiments on the effects of high-altitude flight and other scientific questions. “Nearly two hundred of Germany’s most prominent doctors, surgeons, pathologists, and microbiologists sat mute … when, at a scientific conference in Nuremberg, … the results of the Dachau experiment were outlined in dry scientific language,” Ernest Volkman writes in Science Goes to War. “They were shown movie film of ‘L,’ clad in his concentration camp striped pajamas, writhing and screaming in agony as he died in the Dachau chamber.”
Volkman comments, “Eighty Dachau prisoners died and more than a hundred were crippled for life by the experiments, but there were no cries of outrage when the conference attendees heard of these atrocities.”
Thankfully, we are hearing a few cries of outrage in our day, although not nearly enough. Another Republican governor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, is taking a firm and costly stand against the pro-cloning culture of the self. Romney, whose wife has multiple sclerosis, is speaking out against a bill introduced by state Senator Robert Travaglini allowing the state government and private firms to fund cloning for research and embryonic stem-cell research. Romney says he and his wife “agree that you don’t create life to help cure our issues.”
Harvard’s medical establishment is shocked at the governor’s presumed obscurantism in the face of scientific progress. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, a firm that will profit handsomely once this Pandora’s Box is opened, called Romney’s position “mind-boggling. He is completely out of step with the scientific and medical community.”
Romney, a Mormon who is perhaps moved by the Judeo-Christian religious code that has undergirded our nation for over two centuries, sees things differently. “Respect for human life is a fundamental element of a civilized society,” Romney said to Travaglini in a letter.
Cloning is not a partisan issue. Last month, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) signed on as a cosponsor of the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, sponsored by Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Last July, the House passed its version of the bill, 265-162. Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution opposing all forms of human cloning. (It will be interesting to see if those who usually tout the moral and normative authority of the UN will listen this time.)
When it comes to a fundamental issue like cloning, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. Time-tested religious values can help guide us into moral choices that protect human dignity–considerations about which the scientific community is silent.
Judeo-Christian values, far from being anti-science, laid the foundation for and provided the impetus for the Scientific Revolution. But they also allow us to transcend the cult of the self and use our knowledge wisely to protect basic human dignity for us all–or, to paraphrase the morally tone deaf Schwarzenegger, “to represent the people the best possible way.”
Certainly one basic value, trampled on during the Nazi years and again under threat in our day, is the principle that you do not define one class of humans as of less worth than another. Another is that you don’t use fellow human beings as sources of spare parts without their consent to satisfy the whims and needs of other human beings. As if it needs to be said, human embryos are nascent human beings and have inherent dignity and worth.
“Lofty goals do not justify the creation of life for experimentation or destruction,” Romney rightly said in his letter to Travaglini. “My wife has M.S., and we would love for there to be a cure for her disease and for the diseases of others. But there is an ethical boundary that should not be crossed.”