February 14, 2019
by Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)
A few years ago, at the height of the embryonic stem cell research controversy and public debate, I was asked to be one of four presenters for a Friday medical school forum discussing this topic. There were three other presenters: a semi-retired professor whose area of work was in rehabilitation and advocating for accommodations for persons with disabilities, a social science professor and Dr. X, an MD/PhD whose main area of study was stem cell research. I was the lone conservative.
The rehab professor seemed unable to comprehend that there might even be any ethical concerns regarding embryonic stem cell research. His most memorable quote was, “Why is anyone making a fuss about using discarded blobs of tissue when this could make real human lives better?”
The social scientist came from a pro-choice position on abortion and failed to see any ethical problems with embryonic stem cell research. After all, since abortion is legal, what does it matter what is done with the discarded fetal tissue? While I appreciated the consistency of her reasoning, our worldviews on conception and the beginning of life were light years apart.
I was on the docket before Dr. X, who sat directly beside me at the panelist table. I was armed with a thick notebook of journal article reprints documenting the many then-current successful uses of autologous stem cells in medicine (such as CMDA’s position statements and research from Dr. David Prentice). He glanced briefly at my open notebook but said nothing. My basic argument was rather simple. We already had a useful source of stem cells that carried absolutely no moral baggage with it. Even the most conservative stem cell research critics, including the Catholic Church, CMDA and many evangelical churches, supported this. I thought my examples were telling, and the logic of the position self-evident.
When I stepped down from the podium and Dr. X rose to speak, he glanced briefly at the audience and then aimed several questions directly at me. He confirmed that I was a clinical neurologist, leaving out any mention of my ethics committee experience, ethics degree and clinical ethics fellowship. He next confirmed that I was not directly involved in stem cell bench research. He then delivered his knockout punch. Since I was a clinician, not involved in bench research, I obviously knew nothing about embryonic stem cell research. He didn’t waste any time attacking my arguments, since I was patently not entitled to have an opinion. When pushed, it’s easier to attack the person than argue the merits of the case.
I contacted him the following Monday by phone. I confirmed he was fully aware that non-embryonic stem cell research was far advanced over embryonic stem cell work and already had many clinical applications. Then he said, “Sure, I am well aware of this. In fact, I do a lot of research with both kinds of cells. I just don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t do.” His agenda dictated his ad hominem attack.
In Matthew 13, when Christ returned to His hometown after delivering a series of parables on the kingdom of God, the locals didn’t waste any time dismissing Him. Instead, they said, “‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him…” (Matthew 13:54-57, NIV 1984).
Note that they didn’t comment on the contents of His parables or even the miracles they were obviously aware of. They dismissed Him personally, freeing them from the responsibility of engaging His message.
Another way to attack the person, as opposed to his or her true message, is to grossly distort or mischaracterize statements the person has made in the recent or remote past. If they fear the potential actions of the given person, such as a judicial nominee, they take previously stated opinions out of context, label them as dangerous, racist, sexist or otherwise despicable, and then they repeat their accusations often enough that people begin to believe them without critically examining the evidence. A recent case in point is that of Neomi Rao, nominated to replace Justice Brent Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rao, with an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from University of Chicago Law School, clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, was a counsel to Senator Orrin Hatch on the Senate Judiciary Committee and was a counselor to former President George W. Bush. In addition to these bona fide credentials, on a more personal level, Rao was known, even in college, as a person well recognized for her collegial, composed demeanor when discussing controversial political topics with people advocating positions divergent from her own. She was a voice of conservative reason in politically “progressive” environments. She is currently strongly supported by her conservative friends from university days, and she has also received overwhelming support from many more leftist contemporaries who, while strongly opposed to her positions, affirm her “fundamental decency and integrity.”
Enter the political assassins. Drawing from her college days and student newspaper essays in which she thoughtfully discussed affirmative action, feminism and date rape, she has been lied about and libeled. One quote, for instance, taken out of context, proves she is a misogynist: “A man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted. At the same time, a good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober.” Most sane thinking parents would accept this as good advice for their daughters, but to the far left this relieves predatory males of sexual responsibility. Her thoughtful discussions against affirmative action further proves she hates people of color—though she herself is of Asian Indian heritage.
The Wall Street Journal recently came out with a strong editorial in support of Rao: “If the Senate rejects a nominee as qualified as Ms. Rao, it will have descended one rung lower in the confirmation inferno.” And, as Fox News’ Stuart Varney notes, “How long are we going to tolerate the sliming of decent people?”
We bemoan the dirty tactics that unfortunately have become commonplace. How low will some people go to advance their political agenda? At the same time, in our ardor to support right as we see it, we must remain vigilant that we don’t respond in kind. We should be known for our “fundamental decency and integrity,” so even those who vehemently disagree with us on many things will willingly admit we have attempted to understand their position, we have treated it and them with respect, we have tailored our arguments to address theirs and we have not attacked them as people. We should be known for our civility and love.