In which Ken Miller and I defend Francis Collins against the religious Right

I never thought that I’d be on the same side as biologist Ken Miller when it comes to issues of science and religion. But we are this time, in an article by Kimberly Leonard in The Washington Examiner (click on screenshot below). It’s about Right-wing religionists calling for Dr. Francis Collins to be fired as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—on the grounds that he favors the use of research employing fetal tissue. He also favored research using embryonic stem cells, which got him into hot water with believers some years ago.

The curious thing is that Collins, as you probably know, is an evangelical Christian, and wrote a book, The Language of God: A Scientists Presents Evidence for Belief, full of religious superstition and frankly risible statements about why the Path of Jesus was the right one, as well as allusions to frozen tripartite waterfalls that prompted Collins’s conversion (he was an atheist when younger). I’ve criticized Collins several times for mixing science and faith in his pubic talks, in which implies—using “fine tuning” arguments and the like—that science supports the existence of God. While Collins is free to say what he wants, I thought it was pretty dire to give public talks pushing apologetics and a form of theology when he is also known as the country’s most powerful scientist. But I’d never call for him to be censored, and certainly not fired.

Now I, along with Ken Miller and others, are defending Collins, for on the matter of research using otherwise to-be-discarded material from aborted fetuses and frozen embryos, he’s right, and his religious critics are, well, totally irrational.

Read below:

Fetal tissue comes from aborted fetuses that have been frozen, so they’ll never become adults. That tissue, like embryonic stem cells, has promise for treatment of diseases; as Wikipedia notes,:

Fetal tissue implant or fetal cell therapy is an experimental medical therapy where researchers implant tissue from a fetus into a person as treatment of a disease. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, it is hoped that the fetal tissue would produce chemicals, specifically dopamine, which is lacking in the diseased brain. This therapy is also being investigated for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Fetal tissue is unique since it is fast growing and has a lower possibility of rejection from the host’s immune system than adult cells.

Likewise, embryonic stem cells, which come from frozen embryos that are stored and will never be implanted, have similar promise. Both cells and tissue, then, can be used for medical research in lieu of simply being thrown away. To me this is a no-brainer, like organ donation: if it can do some good, why not use it? After all, my organs, like embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue, will never do anyone any good if they’re incinerated or buried after I die.

But of course religionists object to the medical use, presumably because embryos and fetal tissue are parts of what could have been “potential humans”, but aren’t. Their reasons are pretty lame, as Leonard shows in her report:

“I do think that part of the argument has been missing a little bit in the fetal tissue debate: the sort of immediate assumption that if you’re in support of fetal tissue research that you must also think abortion is just fine,” Collins told the Washington Examiner. “Even for people who are pro-life, who are troubled by abortion, the use of fetal tissue for research, since they are being derived anyway, if that is going to save a life someday, seems like a credible stance.”

Collins’ reasoning outrages people devoted to ending abortion. Advocates from March for Life, the organization that runs the annual rally protesting the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, have told White House officials they want Collins out.

“The current NIH director doesn’t accurately reflect the pro-life and pro-science views of the current administration,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the group. “The president would be better served to find a replacement that does.”

David Prentice, research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, agreed.

“We are not questioning his faith,” Prentice, who is a cell biologist, said of Collins. “Certainly that relationship and faith is between him and God. There are obviously a variety of viewpoints within the Christian community with these life issues. All we have to go on are his policy positions.”

Groups opposed to fetal tissue research are not just opposed to abortion, but contend the practice of using the tissue in experiments is degrading, wrong, and unnecessary. They question whether fetal tissue research is effectual and believe other types of tissues work better and should be used instead — adult stem cells, umbilical cord, amniotic fluid, tissue from the placenta, or discarded tissue from surgery on an infant.

And the threat from Trump’s administration:

In May 2017, 41 conservative U.S. representatives sent Trump a letter asking him to replace Collins, but they haven’t followed up in light of the latest debate. The Washington Examiner hasn’t obtained evidence that Collins’ job is in jeopardy.

“As a matter of standard policy, we do not conduct performance reviews in the press,” said Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for HHS.

But Trump has been unpredictable in his firings, and anti-abortion advocates have developed a strong foothold in his administration. Trump has kept his promises to them. He has appointed judges that align with their positions, allowed religious and moral exemptions to the Obamacare contraception mandate they’ve sought, and examined how to untether pregnancy prevention funds from organizations that also provide abortions.

“We really are very pleased with President Trump and his pro-life policies and all of the promises he has kept,” Prentice said. “We just want to see that continue.”

If the policies don’t change, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List [JAC: the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List] said in a statement, then “it would be the first time the Trump administration has broken with the pro-life movement.”

Now the Department of Health and Human Services, of which the NIH is a branch, “has asked most government scientists to temporarily halt the acquisition of new fetal tissue.” That can come only from the religious character of the GOP administration. The same thing happened earlier during the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations, when the number of embryonic stem-cell lines that could be used for research was strictly limited.

None of this makes any sense. The other argument from the religious Right is that using fetal tissue will encourage abortions, which they abhor. But that doesn’t wash. Does anyone seriously think that a woman will have an abortion because she thinks its tissue might be valuable for medical research, as opposed to having the baby? What kind of mindset could even contemplate such an argument against fetal-tissue research?

A few of us scientists were quoted as supporting Collins:

The biology textbook author Kenneth Miller, a Roman Catholic and cellular biologist at Brown University, said that a ban would affect medical research more than it would Collins personally. “He’d have to execute the ban,” Miller said. “But it would make the job of researchers that much more difficult.”

. . . “I never would call for him to resign,” said Jerry Coyne, a former critic who is a prominent evolutionary scholar and an atheist. “He’s a good scientist and a good administrator. I admire him for sticking up for something that is actually going to help humanity.”

. . . Some scientists who have expressed concern about Collins’ leadership before now say that is overridden by their fear of whom Trump might pick to replace him.

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis, has several qualms about Collins’ leadership, but he wouldn’t want him to be replaced now.

“Since Trump was elected many people say, ‘I don’t really like him, but he’s a supporter of science and medical research, and you could get someone who doesn’t believe in science,’” Eisen said. “That scares a lot of people.”

Coyne said “there would be an outcry” if Collins were to be fired.

“Almost every scientist says he has done a good job … I feel there is something sacrosanct about the NIH,” he said. “It is such a good influence for the U.S.”

Seriously, this is a real instantiation of the conflict between faith and science. Faith says that it’s disrespectful to use fetal tissue for research. Presumably it should be given a dignified burial with a little cross over the top. That’s based on the notion that a fetus is a person with a soul and its tissue shouldn’t be used for medical research. But how can you justify that stand and be in favor of organ donation at the same time, which is the use of dead adult tissue to help others? In contrast, science needs fetal tissue to do research that can save the lives of people with various diseases.  If you say there’s no conflict between science and religion, this fracas shows that you’re wrong.

Anyway, I got a nice email from Ken Miller, who also tweeted our mutual support, and, despite our differences on religion, it’s nice to know we can stand together on issues like evolution versus creationism and fetal tissue research versus, well, doing nothing with the tissue. He also issued a tweet:

38 Comments

  1. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    To be fair, Collins does not push apologetics in public talks on scientific and policy matters.

    • Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that he mixes science and religion in some popular talks, and I think that could confuse people that science actually gives evidence for divinity.

  2. GBJames
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Rita
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    “Does anyone seriously think that a woman will have an abortion because she thinks its tissue might be valuable for medical research, as opposed to having the baby? What kind of mindset could even contemplate such an argument against fetal-tissue research?” There could be a silver lining here because the more extreme positions the anti-choice crowd takes, the more the general public will see how irrational they are, and hopefully their support will continue to dwindle.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      +1! I was about to convey something quite similar. However, you beat me “to the punch” in both timing and quality of vernacular. The only thing I might add, since it’s still 2018, is, “Chalk up another notch for the Streisand Effect”.

    • mikeyc
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Wait. This is the same general public that elected Donald Trump. What in the world makes you think it will “see how irrational they are”?

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 20, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Small correction, the ‘general public’ did not elect Mr Trump, that was the EC
        (regardless of all the probable counting fraud, voter disenfranchisement, Russian targeted smear campaign and Mr Comey).
        Don’t get me wrong, I also doubt that such trivialities as evidence or rational thought will ever trump emotional ‘gut feelings’.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I nearly entirely agree with you and Jerry on this, but I think there is one legitimate concern related to this. Creating a demand for something, which could happen with fetal tissue in the future, does apply a pressure that encourages some percentage of people in the system to cheat in order to profit. For example, doctors so inclined might decide to recommend abortion to women with possible pregnancy issues in situations where they may not have if there were not a demand for fetal tissue that they are in a position to profit from in some way. This kind of thing is endemic and regulatory systems have to be carefully designed and maintained to keep that kind of thing to a minimum.

      If fetal tissue were, sometime in the future, to become a highly sought after product I would be extremely surprised if there were not occasional cases of people gaming the system for profit. Just as there has been with organs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this concern is a good reason to disallow the use of fetal tissue in medical research. It is just an ordinary issue that would need to be managed to keep cheating to a minimum. Just like any other human activity.

    • Posted December 20, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Here, I am not as sure. When the scandal blew up about Korean leading scientist who fabricated stem cell results, reports surfaced that he pressured young women from his institution to get stimulated and donate oocytes to obtain embryos.

  4. yazikus
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Does anyone seriously think that a woman will have an abortion because she thinks its tissue might be valuable for medical research, as opposed to having the baby?

    Yes, I know some people who do think this. They think any woman who would end a pregnancy is morally bankrupt, and if she’s not aborting for fun/convenience then she’s probably trying to make a quick buck selling the aborted fetus to science or something.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it is close to Darelle’s point above.
      However, I think it is possible to draw some regulations that fetal tissue may not be bought or sold. Appears somewhat easier to implement than for organs, at least at the present stage, where the fetal tissue is solely used for research purposes. It is not yet in the Rhino-horn stage.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      There was also the Planned Parenthood ‘sting’ operation where doctors were recorded discussing the sale of fetal tissues from abortions. I know the recording is heavily edited to imply it was about making money, but that view is what opponents are very ready to believe.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The defect in religious thinking is always right at the surface when it steps on science or policy or an part of politics in government. Madison and Jefferson explained this was so many years ago and you don’t need to be an atheist to know this. If you really wanted freedom of religion, stay on your side of the street.

  6. Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Good work, PCC.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Yes indeed! He’s definitely among the best of the best.

  7. MKray
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    His pubic talks?

  8. Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Just another example of the misguided thinking of Trump-evangelicals.

  9. Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    As Ed Brayton has been saying over on his Patheos blog, rumors are circulating that among the things Michael Cohen told investigators about Donald Trump during his 80 hours of testimony for Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York is how many abortions Trump paid for. People are saying it could be as many as eight. Now there’s nothing wrong with that — I’ve contributed to a local women’s health center so I’ve paid for a few myself — but I wonder how these anti-choice, pro-Trumpers will feel about it?

    Of course, if he made any hush-money payments to these women during the campaign, that’s a campaign finance violation, yet another felony.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I doubt one extra dollop of sin on Trump’s part will sway them against him given that the veritable oceans of sin that have long been exposed for all to see haven’t yet dissuaded them. Not to mention that these people are expert liars, especially expert in the art of lying to themselves.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 20, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Reminds us of Richard Feynman’s “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.
        However, I have this kind of suspicion that there are 2 things that even Mr Trump cannot get away with with a substantial part of his base:
        – Systematically employing (and underpaying) illegal migrants.
        – Having his unwanted impregnations aborted.
        The first one with the cultists who see him as a kind of Messiah that’s going to save ‘white’ America. The second might just be a bridge too far for the religious fundamentalists, who accept his warts because he’s implementing their reactionary ideas in policy (G*d’s plan).
        These things should be publicized more. Of course there is always the possibility it will be brushed aside as ‘libtard’, commie smearing of their idol.

        • darrelle
          Posted December 21, 2018 at 8:33 am | Permalink

          Yes, it is tough to figure out before hand what might work to shake up a strongly committed supporter of a populist Pied Piper like Trump enough to make them turn against their leader. I think the best tactic is probably the old, “keep throwing shit at the wall and hope something sticks” trick.

  10. Kevin
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I think the moral argument from religious people stems more from dissaproval of abortion (which they see as the major source of foetal tissue) rather than the use of foetal tissue itself.
    I am sure that many religious people will also agree that use of tissue from an organ donor is morally equivalent with use of foetal tissue apart from the means by which the foetal tissue is obtained (a still-born source is ethically different from an aborted foetus as a source).

    Some religious people might actually approve of use of foetal tissue from still-born sources.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “We really are very pleased with President Trump and his pro-life policies and all of the promises he has kept,” Prentice said. “We just want to see that continue.”

    The evangelicals continue to worship the golden calf at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office — the least “Christian” person ever to occupy that exalted office.

    The House Republicans signing the the letter to Trump include the usual fever-swamp suspects, like white-supremacist Steve King, Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson, and the recently defeated Dave Brat.

    • Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Ken – probably all here agree that the Orange Draft Dodger is the least “Christian”, but sadly his evangelical base consider him the most Christian, and certainly not a Muslim [Obama] or atheist [Clinton]. Even more sadly, some of the folks who make these claims are my relatives, and they are immune to any facts that do not fit their perspective.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 20, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        I think his evangelical base is very much aware he’s an unworthy and despicable sinner and don’t believe for a second he’s very Christian, but they see him as an instrument in G*d’s plan.
        I’ve often been told ‘bless the Father for your work!’. If (I rarely do this) I point out that I’m an atheist and do not believe in ‘the Lord’, they just say that is irrelevant, unbeknownst to me G*d uses me doing His good works. It is ironclad, not a dent, or even a small scratch. And they’ll pray for me.

        • Posted December 20, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          NS – probably true of some, but a couple of my cousins strongly proclaim that he is a born-again Christian because Franklin Graham says so. Another cousin does buy into the fallacious idea that god chose this dope as part of the plan for the end times. When he invokes scripture and prophecy, I just tell him to re-read 2 Thessalonians 2, re the man of lawlessness, especially 11 and 12.

  12. darrelle
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    “The current NIH director doesn’t accurately reflect the pro-life and pro-science views of the current administration,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the group.“

    Aaaaahhhhahhahahah! Pro-science? That’s rich. Standard propaganda tactic, lie by stating the exact opposite of what is true. Claiming you support that which you actually oppose and that your enemy really does support. This standard tactic is used in situations where the liar knows that their position is so stupid or repugnant that the majority of people will not support them if they tell them the truth.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      It’s also standard practice among the anti-science contingency to create or grossly exaggerate scientific “controversies” so that THEY are the ones doing science right. They don’t reject it at all! It’s just a dispute over conclusions.

      Push long enough though and they’ll drag out the “world view” trope, in which whatever conclusion is drawn from the evidence depends on a prior world view. That’s not science; it’s the opposite of science. But their argument is that the bias is inescapable, and the best science is done from the bias known as faith.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 21, 2018 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Yes, you’ve described it very well. Another habit that likewise demonstrates the lack of understanding about science among the anti-science crowd is the common complaint that science is always changing its mind about things. They don’t realize that that is a key feature, not a bug.

    • Posted December 20, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I was going to highlight that!

      I’ll add a quotation from Sean Carroll:

      The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. The universe is much bigger than you or me, and the quest to figure it out unites people with a spectrum of substantive beliefs. It’s us against the mysteries of the universe; if we care about understanding, we’re on the same side.

      The current administration is a bunch of box-fitters.

      /@

      • darrelle
        Posted December 21, 2018 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Good quote from Sean. He is more tolerant than I, not to mention wiser.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Ken Miller’s alright in my book. He did yeoman’s work at the Dover trial. And he done his damnedest to bring William F. Buckley, Jr., around to the right side when Miller and Michael Ruse and Genie Scott and Barry Lynn debated the ID-creationists on Firing Line.

  14. Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    A bigger concern about Collins is that, under his watch, the NIH awarded tens of millions of dollars to a fictitious university in “Santa Cruz.”

  15. A C Harper
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I know of anti-abortion people that believe abortion is wrong because ‘the soul’ is installed at conception. I don’t agree with that proposition, but perhaps some people think that discarded tissue still carries ‘soul cooties’? An emotional rather than a rational argument.

    In which case you should bury or cremate your toe nail clippings with full religious ceremony. They might still carry ‘soul cooties’.

  16. Dave137
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Some grand testimonial stupidity and a complete waste of taxpayer-money by our ignorantly pious politicians (from last week):

    https://www.c-span.org/video/?455873-1/house-oversight-subcommittees-hold-hearing-fetal-tissue-research-alternatives

    Or search CSPAN: “Alternatives to Fetal Tissue Research”

  17. AndrewB
    Posted December 20, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Mt two favourite Christians! I’m not a Christian any more, but I have a lot of respect for Francis Collins and Ken Miller,they are two Christians who I consider to be allies, on many issues.

  18. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Presumably it should be given a dignified burial with a little cross over the top

    But surely two crosses for a Muslim foetus, three for a Catholic (because trinity), and millions for a Hindu foetus. Can’t let those baby souls go into eternity unconverted!


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