Politics & Policy

The President’s Stem-Cell Dollars and the Judge’s Rebuke

Advancing science does not justify the destruction of human life.

On August 23, Judge Royce Lamberth of the federal district court in Washington issued a preliminary injunction halting the implementation of new guidelines from the National Institutes of Health, which permitted the use of federal funds to support embryonic-stem-cell (ESC) research that entailed the ongoing destruction of human embryos. This, Judge Lamberth held, violated a restriction on funding embryo-destructive research known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, enacted in each year’s budget since 1996.

The Obama administration had claimed that the destruction of the embryos and the research using stem cells derived from them could be “separated,” so that the latter was publicly funded but the former (to honor the Dickey-Wicker Amendment) was not. In other words, the administration interpreted the law as saying: “Go ahead and kill the embryos using non-governmental funds; then you can use the stem-cell lines produced by killing the embryos for research using taxpayer money without restriction.” Of course, this interpretation would essentially nullify the amendment, treating its command as if it were a meaningless bookkeeping procedure. Judge Lamberth had no difficulty seeing through this shoddy reasoning: “To conduct ESC research, ESCs must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ESCs from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus, ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.”

The administration ended up in court as a result of Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to reverse the course set by Pres. George W. Bush nine years ago. The Bush policy sought to advance cutting-edge research while maintaining the U.S. government’s longstanding neutrality regarding research that uses and destroys living human embryos. It neither funded nor proscribed such destruction, but did permit federal funds to support research on ESC lines already in existence as of the policy’s promulgation. Thus, it supplied no incentive with U.S. taxpayer dollars for any further destruction of human life for research purposes.

But the Obama administration decided this was not enough. In March 2009, the president issued an executive order reversing the direction taken by the previous administration, and offering the largesse of the federal treasury to scientists engaging in the use and destruction of living human beings. As implemented by the National Institutes of Health four months later — in guidelines Judge Lamberth has now enjoined while litigation proceeds — the Obama policy entrenches in federal law a deeply regrettable precedent: the principle that human beings at the earliest developmental stages may be instrumentalized and treated as raw materials to serve the desires of others. Yet at no point has the president or anyone in his administration offered any argument for treating human embryos as less than human beings or for intentionally destroying them for scientific research.

In response to this change in federal policy, leading scholars, ethicists, and scientists met in Princeton, N.J., last September as the Neuhaus Colloquium, named in honor of the late Richard John Neuhaus, a leader in the civil-rights movement who became a leader in the pro-life movement because he understood that the cause of justice is the cause of all human beings regardless of their race, sex, or religion — or their age, size, or stage of development. In a lengthy statement published in the new issue of First Things, the magazine Neuhaus founded, the members of the Colloquium criticize President Obama for turning his back on the American ideals of equality and human dignity, treating them as disposable or as merely subsumed by the imperative of scientific “freedom.” Coming from a president whose own election was taken by his fellow citizens as the sign of a hard-won victory for the cause of equality in American history — a history that stretches from Independence Hall to Appomattox to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and beyond — this disregard for the weakest and most vulnerable human beings is a particularly acute disappointment.

Announcing his policy shift in March 2009, President Obama said: “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.”

But it is the president who fails to be open to the inconvenient truth about the human embryo, namely, that from the single-cell stage of development onward, the human embryo is a distinct, determinate, self-directing, integrated human organism — a living member of the human species who, if given a suitable environment, will move along the seamless trajectory of biological development toward maturity. At the so-called “blastocyst stage,” when the embryo might be destroyed to derive embryonic stem cells, he or she is already a living individuated organism. The very same organism — the very same human being — who, unless deprived of the conditions of survival, will soon be crawling, then walking, and then a few years later asking mom and dad for the car keys.

Is our humanity alone enough to merit protection and regard, or are we required to prove we have some other set of qualities or capacities to qualify for respect and protection? Should we be allowed intentionally to destroy living human beings for our speculative benefit because they are going to “die anyway”? Shall we treat human beings in the embryonic stage as less than fully human because the embryonic human would be more useful to us dead than alive?

With our fellow Neuhaus Colloquium signatories, we believe these questions have clear answers. Every human being deserves to be treated with the same basic level of concern and regard that we owe to all members of the human family. If basic human equality means anything at all, it must mean that individuals deserve equal moral regard and legal protection in virtue of who they are, not because of their worth as judged by others according to their own needs and desires.

Abandoning this basic principle of justice, the Obama administration has begun to incentivize — with funds provided by the American people and in their name — the exploitation and destruction of human life for scientific research. Judge Lamberth is to be commended for faithfully applying the existing law that expresses the principled conviction that human life is not to be destroyed with taxpayer dollars. President Obama now has a chance to reconsider his misguided policy and replace it with one that advances science while respecting the equal dignity of every human life.

— Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Yuval Levin is editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Matthew J. Franck is director of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton.

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