Forum: May-June 2002

June 1, 2002

 

Hard Scienc

Editors:
Georgann Eubanks' article on stem-cell research [January-February 2002]was interesting and comprehensive. The one aspect that did not receive enough attention, I think, is the flight of private investment from such companies as Geron. The Wall Street Journal has published several news articles about the financial anxieties of researchers (some of whom have had to take ownership, absent more "venture capital" being made available). Geron has patented many of the discoveries made at the University of Wisconsin, and the acrimony about these patents worsened not long after the Bush announcement.

 

Moreover, according to an article in The New York Times, the frozen embryos at IVF labs are proving not to be very useful for the extraction of high-quality stem cells. In this unregulated, multi-billion dollar industry, the prospect of federal tax dollars for the frozen embryos must have looked very good, indeed.

The flight of private investors is due to lack of results, after years of investigation and experiments. Some medical scientists are concerned about reports on the treatment of Parkinson's patients, in which fingernails and hair were produced after infusions of embryonic stem cells into the patients' brains. The work was done in Japan, incidentally.

As with the furor over "human cloning," much agony about "ethical decisions" could be avoided by examining the hard science, not the puff science of our news-media representatives, many of whom know little or nothing about medicine (much less genetics) but who know a good story when they see it.

Odessa Southern Elliott '56 (via e-mail)

P.S. In the fall of 1952, I registered to take a zoology lab course for no better reason than the sophomore across the hall offered me her lab kit and textbook for $5. Somehow, the registrar permitted me to take a pre-med section, although I wasn't pre-med. It was a horrendous struggle, but I have always valued what I learned in that course. And I signed up the next year to take zoo genetics! I was thrilled to find that I could read The Double Helix and understand it. I was sorry to note that Duke no longer offers the doctorate in zoology. In my years, it was considered impossible to master both botany and zoology, even at the undergraduate level.

Marriage Not the Issue

Editors:
In the article "Faith Fires Back" [January-February 2002], Stanley Hauerwas identifies a lack of "linguistic discipline," with specific reference to the institution of marriage, as a barrier to meaningful debate on how the church should deal with homosexuality (pages 13, 46). His remarks miss the point; the state of the marital institution--however one may view it--is not the real issue, and would not, in any case, provide a reasoned basis to deny marriage between gay people. What is at issue is the church's attitude toward our fellow humans who happen to be homosexual.

 

 

Hauerwas suggests a definition of marriage as "a calling that makes promises of lifelong monogamous fidelity in which children are welcomed" creates a "problem" for homosexual marriage. He makes it clear that "fidelity" refers to sex, not love. So Christian marriage is a sanctified space within which sex, otherwise harmful to one's spiritual health, is allowed, subject to constraints (faithful, monogamous, etc.). It also provides support to the committed couple in their efforts to sustain their relationship over time (Hauerwas' "hard discipline over many years").

Until we get to the part about children, I see no way in which this definition would exclude homosexuals in committed relationships. Indeed, if protection from the harmful consequences of unbridled sex is truly a foundation for marriage, homosexuals would seem to have fully as great a need for such protection as heterosexuals. And committed same-sex couples surely could derive the same support the institution of marriage provides to faithful, monogamous, long-term heterosexual relationships--and thus be helped, as Hauerwas says he wants to do, to "avoid the sexual wilderness we live in."

Hauerwas' "children are welcomed" presents a barrier to same-sex marriage only if it refers to at least the possibility of biological offspring. But this still does not allow us to discriminate between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples unable to reproduce due to physical inadequacies. And what of voluntarily childless couples? How do they rate under the Hauerwas definition, compared with same-sex couples eager to adopt? So we still haven't found a bright-line criterion for segregating homosexual goats from heterosexual sheep at the church door.

The foregoing highlights the basic problem: marriage is essentially a side issue. (Though, as we in Vermont are well aware from our experience in instituting marriage-like civil unions for same-sex couples, it has provided the fuel for some blazing public controversy.) The real issue is what is the nature of homosexuality. Opponents of homosexual marriage--or any formal recognition of homosexual unions--tend to hew closely to a biblical line condemning homosexuality as unnatural and an "abomination" (Leviticus 18: 22).

But there is information, not available in biblical times, that strongly supports the view that homosexuality is innate, like left- or right-handedness or heterosexuality. In particular, homosexuality is no longer classified as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. On the specific issue of unnaturalness, there is a growing body of evidence that homosexuality is not restricted to humans, but also is characteristic of numerous other species.

St. Paul, with Leviticus, is a prime source for the Bible-based condemnation of homosexuality. But Paul was no fan of sex of any kind, homo or hetero, and inveighed often and at length against fornication. In the case of fornication, Paul famously provided his grudging endorsement of marriage ("better to marry than to burn") as an escape hatch. In light of the additional information, supporting the view that homosexuality is as innate and "natural" as heterosexuality, might he have responded to the idea of expanding marriage to include homosexuals in a similar vein? Would not such response be entirely consistent with the spirit of Christian charity so beautifully expressed in 1 Corinthians 13?

I fully recognize that I may have misinterpreted Professor Hauerwas. But given the nature of this issue, and the way the sides have tended to line up, it seems doubly unfortunate that he, as both a distinguished theologian and faculty member at such a distinguished institution of higher learning, should not have taken the opportunity to introduce a clear note of reason as well as compassion to this benighted issue.

David J. Klock (via e-mail)

 

Redirect Religion

Editors:
Regarding Jackson W. Carroll's analysis of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church [March-April], it is my hope that, much like Gorbachev's reforms leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the recent apologies of the Pope for these abuses, along with his earlier apologies for contributions to the Nazi atrocities of World War II, will lead to the collapse of the Catholic Church, and to the redirection of the religious impulse in humankind.

 

Religion should serve only to unite us, better enabling us to take better care of each other, of our communities, and of our planet. By and large it does not do so. While enriching some and impoverishing others, while attempting to control and suppress human freedom, while fomenting wars and petty arguments all around the world, religion fails at its only conceivable purpose.

There are only two true sins: deceit and coercion. There are only two necessary rules: The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; and The Silver Rule, "Do no unnecessary harm." There is only one necessary Commandment: "Do not be mean."

Real progress toward genuine civilization is made very difficult by the organized religions of the world. May they all crumble from the weight of their inherent contradictions.

Paul G. Hodges '73, Mt. Airy, North Carolina

 



Don't Frown on Town


Editors:
While I enjoy the new layout of your magazine, I was discouraged to see the premier "Face Value" item featuring Iciss Tillis, Duke sophomore and women's basketball forward who doesn't like "the town [she's] in."

 

Since graduating from Duke in 1993, I have been following the efforts the administration, faculty, and especially the students have made to improve relations between my alma mater Duke and my hometown of Durham. While attending Duke, I was frequently reminded by classmates, jokingly I'm sure, that our fair city was quite lacking in some of the modern conveniences and attitudes they had become accustomed to while living in other areas of the country or of the world. However, most of the students I knew realized that, if Duke taught us anything, it was to take action where we see a problem, get out there and visit an ailing neighborhood school, become a Big Brother, get to know a Durhamite, and learn about why we do the things we do.

As a member of the 1991 cheerleading squad for women's basketball, this Durhamite can attest to the fact that Durhamites outnumbered Duke students at our home games. Durhamites make up a large percentage of the Iron Dukes, who provide scholarships to student athletes such as women's basketball players. Durhamites are extremely proud of the continuing success of the men's basketball program under Coach K and the women's basketball program under Coach G.

Unfortunately, this Durhamite cannot say that, unlike Coach K's program, Coach G's program is a success in every sense of the word. While Coach G has taught these ladies how to win ballgames, no matter how many wins these women have, they still lose if they fail to learn respect for others, respect for self, and how to conduct yourself in the world.

Abby Cornwall Harrison '93 (via e-mail)

New and Improved

Editors:
Congratulations on the snazzy new layout in the March-April issue. Even more impressive was the way your writers probed thorny subjects--faculty appointments and financial aid. Yes, Robert Bliwise showcased the $25-million Nicholas gift for faculty development, but he also deftly--sometimes poignantly--revealed the inside story of the various strategies Duke has used to attract faculty members, where those strategies succeeded and where they failed. And Chris Hildreth's vivid portraits helped me to picture four of the new hires in their environments.

 

Kim Koster's timely explanation of financial-aid policies answered the questions raised by a Wall Street Journal article that challenged Duke's economic diversity. Once more, I am reassured by the good sense that the administration seems to be showing at all levels.

Living as I do in Princeton, New Jersey, where the buzz about these matters can be deafening, these articles helped me put the policies of my own alma mater in perspective. I'm especially proud to be a Duke alumna when I read this "pull few punches" magazine.

Barbara Figge Fox '61 (via e-mail)