Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Gospel of St Francis....Collins, that is

The Sept 6 New Yorker has a story about Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health -- his life, his religion, and how he thought he had resolved the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells.  He is, as everyone knows, a born-again evangelical Christian, so naturally people wondered where he would come down on this issue. He's often treated as if his word is Gospel when it comes to health; but he's not Catholic so he's not St Francis.

Indeed, people wondered how he'd come down on many issues, given his religious bent, but he assured us that this job was separate from his religion (he was quoted in the New York Times at the time of his nomination as saying, “I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H.,” he said, “and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on").  And indeed, his friends all assured us when he was appointed that he wouldn't let his religion guide his decisions about science.

Oh, really?  As the story in the New Yorker puts it, the way he made his decision about stem-cell research was to reconcile his views on stem cells with his Christian morality.  He ultimately decided he was in favor of embryonic stem cell research, but not before he wrestled with the decision from his religious point of view.
Before Collins had a direct say in the Administration’s decision on stem cells, he was personally torn by the ethical questions posed by stem-cell research. He has long opposed the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. He sees a human embryo as a potential life, though he thinks that it is not possible scientifically to settle precisely when life begins. But Collins also feels it is morally wasteful not to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of embryos created for in-vitro fertilization that ultimately are disposed of anyway. These embryos are doomed, but they can help aid disease research.

Although his feelings about embryonic stem-cells are indeed pro-research, and satisfied scientists, particularly those doing stem cell research -- he was quoted as being 'stunned' by the legal decision two weeks ago to halt stem cell research -- it can't be denied that he filtered his thinking through his religious beliefs.  Just as those who were not in favor of his appointment worried that he would do -- and those who supported him assured us he wouldn't.  If he makes the 'right' decision based on his religious views, in the minds of scientists who want to be free to do whatever they want to do, is that now okay?

We all have a moral filter of some sort, and make decisions based on what we think is right and wrong, but one would hope that the head of the organization that guides the direction of research into fundamental life and death matters would have a more nuanced, less superstition-driven basis for those decisions.  Indeed, in his official position, with his hands on so much of the people's money, his decisions should be driven by what would have the greatest impact on the health of the most people.  We trust him when he says that he doesn't believe he has a religious agenda for the NIH, but when his basis for decisions is his evangelical faith, what else can you call it?

And, it must be said that our own primary concern when he was selected to head the NIH had more to do with his genetic and technology fundamentalism than his religion -- a concern that the New Yorker story doesn't acknowledge, though surely we weren't the only scientists who felt this way.  Dr Collins is a technophile's technophile, and there are many reasons to challenge the unrestrained investment in hypertechnologies as the main mission of our national heath institute.


Alan Packer said...

Dr. Buchanan,
I get the feeling that if Francis Collins said 2+2=4, you would decry the influence of religion on his official duties. You say that he should have a "more nuanced, less superstition-driven basis" for his decisions, which seem to you to be based on his "evangelical faith". I'm sorry, but I challenge any fair-minded person to read the relevant excerpt from the New Yorker article (quoted in your post) and to come away agreeing with your take on it. The thought process outlined in the excerpt seems to me to be entirely compatible with the reasonable ethical qualms that any non-religious, pro-ESC research advocate might share. Where's the superstition on the subject of human embryos? Where's the evangelism in the description of his views on this matter? Really, I'm baffled...

Anne Buchanan said...

In fact, I wasn't one of the many people who was bothered by Collins' religion when he was nominated for this job. I _was_ bothered by his strong belief in genetics and technology, but I didn't think his religion was going to be an issue. You and I read the New Yorker article differently, obviously, but to me it says that if a decision isn't compatible with his religious beliefs, he won't make it. This is understandable but, to my mind, when his religious morality comes first, this doesn't mean his decisions are necessarily in the best interest of the people's health. In the case of stem cells, his decision made a lot of Christian's unhappy, so he's certainly not taking an evangelical party line. But we didn't suggest that he was, just that his filter was first his religion.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree with Anne, and of course we wrote our post together. The more worrisome point to us is the love affair with genetics and technology which we think commits NIH to this direction to an excessive degree.

But it was Francis who made a public thing of his religion and his conversion experience, not us. If he is going to write a book about that, and talk about it publicly, and one may say, makes book royalties of that (unlike, I think, Obama who says beyond a simple statement of being a Christian that he keeps his religion private), he should be open to question about his motivation in a country with church-state separation.

Everyone has his/her own moral compass, as I think was said here or in other posts. The 'God' issue is to an extent a red herring, and we have said we largely view it that way. But, again, he is the one who made so much of it. So even if you have a different take on it, it's germane to discuss it.

Alan Packer said...

Thank you for your replies to my comment. With all due respect, I think you're missing my point. Of course it's germane to discuss whether Collins's religious views are affecting his scientific decisions as director of NIH. But my point was that you specifically criticized him for his supposedly evangelically-inspired views of embryonic stem cell research, when nothing he's said about the subject is consistent with that (least of all the excerpt from the New Yorker). I'd go so far as to say that there's no evidence that any scientific decision Collins has taken at NIH (or previously at NHGRI) betrays a religious or evangelical bias. This is not to say that we shouldn't be on the lookout given what Collins has written about his religious belief. I just think we need to be fair about it.

Anne Buchanan said...

I would have agreed with you until I read the New Yorker piece.

Ken Weiss said...

We certainly would agree with the need for fairness. Also, everyone should have some moral compass and whatever its source, it must of course affect their actions. Collins is not the first 'believer' in such position. I think George Bush said God told him we are to rule the world, invade Iraq,and so on, and I think he and Clinton were 'born again'.

I distinctly and personally remember the controversy over Kennedy's campaign and the intense feeling that a Catholic should not be elected President because he'd owe his allegiance to the Pope.

Since the bioethical issues are controversial in the public, there's no easy way to judge the correct way an official should act, as a civilian official and as an ethical person.

Again, our major issue with Francis' as Director of NIH is the rough ride that we think his technophilia and genomics is giving to our research and health resources.