In tonight’s press conference, Jon Ward of the Washington Times asked the president whether he personally wrestled with the ethics of federally funding embryonic stem cell research. Obama’s answer began this way:
Okay. No, I — I think it’s a — I think it’s a legitimate question. I — I wrestle with these issues every day. As I mentioned to — I think in an interview a couple of days ago, by the time an issue reaches my desk, it’s a hard issue. If it was an easy issue, somebody else would have solved it and it wouldn’t have reached me. Look, I believe that it is very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines, when it comes to stem-cell research or anything that touches on, you know, the issues of possible cloning or issues related to, you know, the human life sciences. I think those issues are all critical, and I’ve said so before. I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion.
This was his discussion of the ethical issues, and what stands out of course is that it contains absolutely no discussion of the ethical issues. What is it he is wrestling with? What is the concern? What does he think of it? What issues “are critical”? What do the “strong moral guidelines” need to involve?
Whatever it is, Obama thinks his executive order takes care of it. He continued:
I think that the guidelines that we provided meet that ethical test. What we have said is that for embryos that are typically about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson’s or for Alzheimer’s or for, you know, all sorts of other debilitating diseases, juvenile diabetes, that — that it is the right thing to do. And that’s not just my opinion. That is the opinion of a number of people who are also against abortion.
The trouble with this is that Obama’s executive order didn’t actually do any of it. Again, it’s not clear what “ethical test” he has in mind, but beyond that it’s not clear what guidelines he has in mind. The order he signed this month has this to say about ethical guidelines:
Within 120 days from the date of this order, the Secretary, through the Director of NIH, shall review existing NIH guidance and other widely recognized guidelines on human stem cell research, including provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on such research that is consistent with this order. The Secretary, through NIH, shall review and update such guidance periodically, as appropriate.
In other words, it included no ethical guidelines at all, leaving those to the NIH to decide later. Obama seemed to suggest his rules would allow funding only for the use of cell lines from embryos whose parents turned them over to researchers and were otherwise going to discard them. Whatever you think of that practice, the president’s executive order established no such rule, and many of his supporters have praised him for avoiding it.
Ward then followed up, asking “I meant to ask as a follow-up, though, do you think that scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do?” And Obama answered:
“No. I think there’s always an ethical and a moral element that has to be — be a part of this. And so, as I said, I don’t take decisions like this lightly. They’re ones that I take seriously. And — and I respect people who have different opinions on this issue. But I think that this was the right thing to do and the ethical thing to do. And as I said before, my hope is, is that we can find a mechanism ultimately to cure these diseases in a way that gains a hundred percent consensus. And we certainty haven’t achieved that yet. But I think on balance this was the right step to take.”
Ward’s question was cleverly worded, because the executive order that Obama signed included only one brief section of argument for the policy change, and it read:
Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions. Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by Federal funds.
In the text, then, scientific consensus seemed to be enough. Again, Obama’s answer was in tension with the policy he established himself, and with which he seemed not to be especially familiar.
Whatever we make of this exchange, it does not suggest the president wrestles much with the life issues.