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Culture of Death
Faith Over Science

Witch trials weren’t exactly backwoods excesses of zealotry. They were elaborate performances grounded in law and the expertise of what was then, in early modern Europe, considered the best-available evidence. The trials were popular, the inquisitors feared and respected, the outcomes, which usually sizzled, unquestioned. That witch-hunting’s most feverish age coincided with the rational insurgency of Galileo, Descartes and Newton didn’t diminish witch trials’ credibility; to the contrary: The trials reset morality’s clock to God time. Scientists were the heretics.

Trivia? Not in light of the Bush administration once again scorning science in the name of rabid theologies. Whether it’s the war on drugs, on stem cell research, on global warming science, on sex, on abortion, on evolution, or whether it’s the wars in Iraq or on terror for that matter, demagogues, channeled through Bush policies, are enslaving evidence to ideology and reducing facts to three-fifths the weight of faith. For evidence, witch judges had the authority of the Church behind them. Today’s demagogues have co-opted the manners of empirical science — the academic lingo, the “Ph.D.” next to their names, the peer-reviewed studies. And they’re making faith the loyalty oath of 21 st century America. Both of President Bush’s last two nominees to the Supreme Court, remember, referred to their faith as an assumed virtue, as if faith gave them more credibility on the bench than if they were partial to chunky monkey ice cream (which it doesn’t). But every time a public figure cashes in on “faith,” the American experiment loses altitude.

What’s made America great in the last two centuries — that “can-do” spirit that tames every frontier — has been the transformation of the scientific method into a way of life. “American genius was less for invention or discovery than for experiment,” the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote of those centuries: As everything was worth exploring, faith in progress became an assumption. What’s being lost now is the progressive part of that equation: The scientific method counts less than beliefs — that is, moral and prejudice posing as objective policy, and inviting regression as a result. Is it any wonder that policy cranked out of that mindset should be any less hollow?

Let’s dispense with generalities for a moment. Consider a 12-year-old girl. If the law of averages has more sway than her parents’ delusions, she’ll be sexually active before she turns 17. The same law of averages says that sexually active Americans have a better than 50 percent chance of contracting the human papillomavirus over their lifetime. HPV is the most common of the sexually transmitted diseases. It is also the No. 1 cause of cervical cancer, which kills half a million American women a year. Two companies have developed a vaccine that protects against HPV’s deadliest strains. The vaccine virtually eliminates a woman’s chance of contracting HPV, thus drastically cutting her chances of developing cervical cancer. I would not hesitate to inoculate my daughter the moment the vaccine becomes available, regardless of her age. The vaccine won’t dictate whether she becomes sexually active sooner, and frankly I wouldn’t care if it did. Sparing her an untimely cancer seems to me a greater moral imperative than fretting over her sex life.

The Food and Drug Administration will decide by June whether to approve the vaccine. I’m not hopeful, given recent history of agencies that serve an extension of the Bush administration’s neo-puritan view of the world. Two years ago the FDA’s advisory committee voted 23-4 in favor of making the morning-after contraceptive pill available over the counter. The FDA’s staff had reached similarly supportive conclusions. For the first time in history, the FDA— reflecting religious conservatives’ lechery for sham morality — rejected those recommendations, ostensibly because it was worried that adolescents would have more sex if they had access to the pill. Conservatives are raising the same objections to the HPV vaccine. Listen to Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican and a family doctor: “Premarital sex is dangerous, even deadly. Let’s not encourage it by vaccinating 10-year-olds so they think they’re safe.” Imagine if an HIV vaccine becomes available. Would such perverted moral “values” still rank higher than the value of human lives?

Bush answered the question in August 2001 with his witch-trial-worthy compromise over stem-cell research, until then an enormously promising field of medical breakthroughs. He would allow federal support for a few existing stem-cell lines, but no more. Even states and private foundations researching stem cells could not do so by relying on anything — buildings, technology, research — that is in any way federally funded, a retardant that will very possibly be a death sentence to future cures for dozens of common diseases suffered by millions. Bush called his compromise a victory for the “culture of life.” How lucky for those who won’t be staring an untimely death in the face.


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