The Corner

Stem Cells, Science, and Ethics

Before signing his executive order overturning President Bush’s stem-cell policy, President Obama today delivered a speech explaining his decision. The implications of the policy will be widely debated here and elsewhere in the weeks to come, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the speech itself. Three immediate thoughts:

First, the president claims that “the majority of Americans — from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs — have come to a consensus that we should pursue” stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos. This is a gross distortion. As Ramesh notes, the quality of polling in this area is terrible. The most comprehensive and balanced examination of public opinion was a poll commissioned by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and summarized by Yuval Levin here. That poll showed considerable public confusion about the stem-cell debate. Americans generally support scientific research, and so, unsurprisingly, when asked simply whether they support stem-cell research, a majority of the poll’s respondents said they did. But when the question was framed as an ethical matter, opinion shifted dramatically. For instance, a majority of the respondents agreed with this statement: “An embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.” The poll’s results vitiate the president’s claim today that there is a grand American consensus in favor of federal funding for medical research that destroys human embryos.

Second, in a plain reference to the Bush administration, President Obama said that:

…in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

The president went on to say that many people are “conflicted about” or opposed to research that destroys human embryos, and then said “I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.”

Let us be candid. When President Bush announced his stem-cell policy eight years ago, biomedical research was proceeding in a direction that many Americans consider morally repugnant: toward the routine creation and destruction of nascent human life for the purpose of experimentation. Rather than present the nation with a “false choice,” President Bush offered a compromise — a policy that allowed research to proceed, and even offered federal funding, but that did not permit taxpayer dollars to support or incentivize the destruction of human embryos. In undoing that policy and in encouraging Congress to fund such research, it is President Obama who is offering the nation a false choice. President Bush believed that science and ethics could proceed hand in hand; President Obama’s policy implies that you can only have cures or only protect human embryos, not both.

What room is there for ethics in President Obama’s thinking? He says that he “understand[s]” the concerns of opponents of this research, but this is the sort of empty and condescending acknowledgement of an opponent’s views encouraged by the teachers of conflict resolution — a formulaic expression of the sort that careful listeners will frequently hear from our new president. Neither the president’s speech nor his executive order actually acknowledge what the ethical concerns are. He assures the nation that the research will proceed “responsibly” and that “the perils can be avoided” — but from the point of view of opponents of this research, it is his policy itself that leads irresponsibly toward the peril of embryo exploitation and experimentation, toward accepting the destruction of one class of human beings for the benefit of another.

Third, and finally, President Obama emphasized the importance of making “scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” This is a remarkable statement, and not only because of the irony — that the president’s speech was about an issue on which his supporters had strenuously sought to obscure facts for the sake of ideology. It is remarkable also in light of the president’s brief discussion of science in his inaugural address. What counts as a purely “scientific decision”? What issues can we possibly decide on scientific grounds alone — that is, without also inquiring after the kinds of important ethical, political, and economic concerns that President Obama denigrates as mere “ideology”? On what future issues will the president claim that science dictates a policy and trumps all other concerns? We shall see soon enough.

— Adam Keiper is the editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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