NIH nominee Collins’ life views questioned

By Staff
Jul 15, 2009

President Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins to be director of the National Institutes of Health has resulted in pro-life advocates expressing concerns about the views regarding unborn life held by the world-renowned scientist and evangelical Christian.

Collins, 59, is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, the 13-year program that identified all of the roughly 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA.

In announcing his intention to nominate Collins, the president described him as “one of the top scientists in the world,” adding “his groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease.”

In recent years, Collins has spoken and written about the relationship between Christianity and science, including in the best-selling book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” He has sought to harmonize science and Christian faith and has endorsed a version of theistic evolution he calls BioLogos rather than a six-day creation or intelligent design.

Since Obama announced Collins’ nomination July 8, some evangelical and pro-life spokesmen have taken issue with the nominee’s comments about embryonic stem cell research and cloning.

A philosophy professor at Union University said Collins needs to make his views clear before he takes over as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which oversees federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Extraction of stem cells from an embryo requires the destruction of a tiny human being less than a week old.

Collins was mistaken or misleading in comments about Obama’s position on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, said Justin Barnard, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

At Obama’s direction, NIH issued final regulations July 6 governing federal funding of stem cell research. In a May interview Collins said Obama’s position “is not very radical” because Obama basically said “what Bush said in August of 2001” when the former president announced his policy. But that is not the case, Barnard says. The new NIH guidelines allow research not only on lines that were in existence when Obama made his announcement but new stem cell lines, Barnard wrote in a July 13 commentary for Public Discourse (www.thepublicdiscourse.com). Obama’s position in fact is a “dramatic shift” from Bush’s, Barnard said.

In these and other comments, Collins “is less than clear” regarding “the metaphysics and moral value of human life,” Barnard wrote.

Meanwhile, Collins appears to support therapeutic cloning for research purposes while opposing reproductive cloning with the intent of producing a born child.

In “The Language of God,” Collins says the “immediate product” of cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, falls “short of the moral status of the union of sperm and egg,” Barnard wrote. The problem with this comment, Barnard said, is a “cloned human embryo, no less than a human embryo produced by the union of [sperm and egg], is an embryonic human. That is a matter of biological fact that Collins conveniently shuffles off stage,” Barnard said.

The NIH guidelines prohibit federal grants for research on stem cell lines produced by cloning.

David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, expressed more certainty about Collins’ stem cell views, telling Religion News Service, “Francis is a great person, a good scientist, but we disagree with his positions on human embryonic stem cell research and on cloning human embryos for experimentation.”

Barnard wrote, “Collins needs to come clean. Either he upholds the dignity of human life or he doesn’t. If he does, and he accepts the nomination to lead the NIH, then it seems that he is deeply compromised as a professing evangelical Christian. If he does not, then the evangelical community needs to know. For his appointment to this position has the potential to cause great harm in the way of moral confusion to many unsuspecting evangelicals as long as his views on nascent human life remain veiled behind a cloud of sophistical rhetoric.”

Because of their ability to develop into other cells and tissues, stem cells provide hope for producing cures for a variety of diseases.

Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. But the research has yet to provide treatments for human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Human trials using stem cells from non-embryonic sources, however, have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, despite the fact such cells are not considered pluripotent, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Among the afflictions treated by non-embryonic cells are cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, according to Do No Harm.

Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor.

Collins served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH from 1993 to 2008.

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