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percy-l - Re: [percy-l] A Walker Percy piece written for the NY Times 30 years ago

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Subject: Percy-L: Literary, Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Discussion on Walker Percy

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  • From: Wade Riddick <wriddick AT>
  • To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion" <percy-l AT>
  • Subject: Re: [percy-l] A Walker Percy piece written for the NY Times 30 years ago
  • Date: Mon, 7 Feb 2011 23:23:34 -0600

>age than most. People get desensitized. Who wants to go about his
>business being reminded of the six million dead in the holocaust, the

It was twelve million in the Holocaust, wasn't it?

There is a wonderful irony here. It is this: The onset of individual
life is not a dogma of the church but a fact of science. How much more
convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything
about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were
legitimate. Compared to a modern textbook of embryology, Thomas
Aquinas sounds like an American Civil Liberties Union member.
Nowadays it is not some misguided ecclesiastics who are trying to
suppress an embarrassing scientific fact. It is the secular juridical-
journalistic establishment.

So what do we want to discuss here - the fact that the _Roe v. Wade_ decision is consistent with the early 19th Century Catholic church's views on abortion - before the church altered them over French political concerns?

Speaking of addressing modern facts, do we want to discuss the fact that - for purely natural reasons - conception is a messy trial-and-error process in which half of all fertilized eggs never make it to term? Are we to count this as a 50% infant mortality rate?

I'll tell you why we don't add millions more to the infant mortality statistics every year. That would mean there was a "disease," a potentially addressable, "life-saving" medical concern that would necessitate research. We would have to spend money investigating human fertility in a petri dish. We couldn't do it with monkeys because humans follow a particular, peculiar development pattern unique to our species.

And what's the church's position on in vitro fertilization work of any stripe?

What will we do with reckless endangerment and homicide charges? If a woman doesn't know she's pregnant and drinks or smokes or exercises too strenuously and the blastocyst doesn't implant, do we prosecute her? How will we know it wouldn't have been one of the "natural deaths" instead of the woman's fault? Do we install electronic monitors in every womb?

What's the practical point of making something a crime if you can't detect it?

How many abortificants will we remove from the store shelves? Will we ban birth control pills - which, when taken in the proper combination, act as a "morning after" pill? Will we ban herbs like rosemary and thyme? (Remember that old Simon & Garfunkle standard, "Scarborough Faire?" One of the old Child ballads upon which it's based is purported to be a folk recipe for abortion using common herbs.)

Please indulge the novelist if he thinks in novelistic terms. Picture
the scene. A Galileo trial in reverse. The Supreme Court is
cross-examining a high school biology teacher and admonishing him
that of course it is only his personal opinion that the fertilized human
ovum is an individual human life.

I don't know too many human beings you can slice in two to make two completely new human beings. You can do that with blastocysts - but then that wasn't proven until the 1980s, after Percy wrote the editorial. Still, the existence of identical twins points to the existence of this natural process in the womb. This means blastocysts - embryonic stem cells - are qualitatively different than the actual embryo.

I don't know what Walker Percy is suggesting in this editorial. Is he just venting at changes in the sexual mores of American society wrought by a post-hippie hangover? Is he proposing actual changes to the legal code? I certainly applaud his denunciation of the infant formula companies. The processed food industry has damaged a lot of lives because it substitutes political interests for rational, scientific evidence when making business decisions. (I am, at this very moment, struggling with a sinus infection that I could treat with over-the-counter decongestants if only they didn't all contain allergens like food dyes and sugars I can't tolerate. These fillers have nothing to do with efficacy but are added for marketing reasons to make the pills colorful and palatable to consumers. The FDA makes these allergy pills available over-the-counter because they are deemed "safe." But in order for me to get the medication properly compounded in a form that won't make me sick, I have to go to a doctor for a prescription because, you know, getting allergy pills that don't cause allergy attacks is really, really dangerous and I, as a consumer, have to be protected from that.)

I may deplore living in a culture of easy abortion and easy sex when, in fact, neither is ever easy, but on a practical basis what do you expect the law to do about it? Government can't bring about heaven on Earth. It's not here to maximize happiness, as the Benthemites desire. No government can instill virtue in its citizenry. Government can make it easier to behave well and harder to behave poorly but one should never expect perfection in humanity.

It's a bad idea to base public policy on misunderstood science - which Walker Percy does here - or on an intolerance for sin - which he doesn't. We have, in our current era, a prominent combination of both errors.

Authoritarian movements are, by their very natures, intolerant of the truth and devoid of irony. Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, their narcissism is so deep they cannot see their self reflected in any mirror. They depend on ideology to triumph over reality. They brandish literalism, fundamentalism and constitutionalism to quash the independent-mindedness necessary for democracy to function. When Christians fall into literalism, like all literalists they become functionally illiterate. The general issues of justice and fairness in society slip as politicians focus instead on empty symbols of perceived civic virtue.

And that's the real lesson, I think, here. Be careful who you get into bed with.

These same people who profess such a love for human life have worked so diligently to keep me from getting health insurance. These are the same individuals who advocate torture for terror suspects - despite ample evidence of its ineffectiveness.

Disliking, even denouncing, abortion may be appealing for Christians, but drawing on the law to prohibit it during an ambiguous period of human development is impractical. I don't know if Percy would have ever turned his own tools of irony detection on abortion but I learned from his writings, I follow the science and I keep an eye out for such incongruities.

Last year, a Republican Federal District Court appointee ruled that federal financing of embryonic stem cell research violated the ban on using federal money for abortion. For those interested, I've appended one of the comments I posted on the web at the time that decision came out. It points to ample ironies in the judge's flawed reasoning.

You've had some comments on the legal nature of the judge's decision equating embryonic stem cell research with "embryo destruction." I'd like to comment on the science. Judicial findings of fact are supposed to be rooted in science but this entire area has been so highly politicized, basic biological reality has become unrecognizable - but then, that's the point.
The judge basically declared that maintaining an embryonic stem cell line - i.e., *not* killing it - is tantamount to abortion under federal law. This simply isn't the case. In fact, as a consequence of the ruling many researchers who depend upon federal funding may well stop maintaining these lines and let them die. This insanity stems from an ironic misapprehension of fact.
When an egg is fertilized, it begins dividing into a ball of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells called a blastocyst. These cells are called undifferentiated because they have the capacity to turn into every tissue type in the body. After a few divisions, these cells lose their embryonic stemness and begin to differentiate to form the various tissues of the embryo.
Embryonic stem cells come from undifferentiated blastocysts and NOT embryos. Embryonic stem cells are the cells that create embryos and then disappear. There aren't actually any embryonic stem cells left in an embryo worth harvesting. The judge's reasoning is like saying hairs are the same thing as hair follicles. They aren't, and no amount of political ideology can make it so. Hair follicles may create hairs but they aren't actually the hair itself.
If the judge understood this, he would know how patently absurd it is to refer to the creation of embryonic stem cell lines as "embryo destruction." Culturing a blastocyst like this does just the opposite. Theoretically one fertilized egg can be coaxed into a line of a million cells which can then be turned into a million babies. You can stick a blastocyst on a slide and chop it up with a razor and get twins, triplets-however many clones you would like. We've been doing this sort of cloning with cattle for almost three decades now. On the other hand, if you slice up an actual embryo, it dies. It's differentiated tissue; E.S.C.'s are not. That's why they are so valuable. They can turn into so many different tissues. If the cell lines involved actual embryos - as the judge alleges - their special qualities of stemness would be lost.
There does not appear to be anyone left in science journalism either able to understand or courageous enough to state these basic facts.
It's outrageous the way in which the popular press has been coopted by these uneducated radicals who deny basic elements of cosmology, evolution and climatology so they can live in their own little corner of darkness. Scripture tells us to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Instead the press seems as delighted about banging our shins in the dark as the rest of the willfully ignorant.
As someone who is severely autoimmune, I really resent the fact that science policy is being determined by guys who flunked high school biology while all the biotech and I.T. jobs flee to China and India. I also resent the fact that members of the Supreme Court have decided major cases about pager and cell phone technology while needing an embarrassingly rudimentary primer on electronics in open court.
Consider the following policy absurdities that come from equating fertilized eggs with embryos.
Half of all fertilized eggs don't make it to term for natural reasons. We don't understand why. That's just the messy way nature designed the process. That would equate to more than three million "embryos" lost every year in America. Has the right wing ever understood enough science to have the infant mortality rates adjusted to reflect this loss of "life?" Why does the Catholic Church claim it protects fertilized eggs but then blocks research into basic fertility that might prevent this implantation failure?
I take a blastocyst, cut it in half, put half in the mother and use the other half to create an embryonic stem cell line/tissue bank for the baby. The baby gets born and there's a stem cell line. Where's the dead embryo?
I take a hair out of my arm, take the stem cells out of the fleshy bulb at the end, add the right chemicals to make them revert to an earlier embryonic stem cell state - and, voila, suddenly I got pregnant and gave myself an abortion. (This might turn out to be quite easy. To turn hair follicle stem cells into pluripotent stem cells, you just have to activate the genes Oct4 and KLF4 <>.)
In vanished twin syndrome, one blastocyst absorbs another in the womb giving rise to a hybrid individual with two distinctly different sets of genes (technical term: chimera). Do you plan on declaring an accidental homicide and charging the survivor?
When a blastocyst splits to make identical twins or triplets, will these individuals be considered a single person under the law? I don't know of any people you can hack in two to make clones - but you can do it with blastocysts *because they aren't embryos yet*.

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