Human Exceptionalism

The Great Obama Straddle: Oxymoronic Stem Cell Speech

I’m finally getting around to reading President Obama’s stem cell speech. It contains the usual bromides about how we are in danger of falling behind in science, yadda, yadda, yadda. But it also seems oddly oxymoronic to me. First he said:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society

But then in the very next paragraph, he said:

This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: 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. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda–and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

But by instituting “rigorous guidelines”–I’ll believe that when I see it–he is tying scientists’ hands, if you want to look at it ethical constraints in that way, just as Bush did. He just has drawn the line in a different place, apparently at reproductive cloning.

He also seems to be leaving the real dirty work–allowing federal funding for the creation and destruction of embryos and for therapeutic cloning, to Congress–as advocated, not coincidentally, in today’s New York Times. Look for that story to develop as the year progresses.

He also said he supported funding of alternative methods:

…by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.

But what he did in his executive order signed just after the speech was rescind the very Bush executive order requiring the government to make a point of funding that alternatives research.

So what we had on vivid display yesterday was what I call the Great Obama Straddle: He spoke out of both sides of his mouth within seconds. But always remember, actions speak louder than words, and on issues of concern to SHS, he is quickly moving from very bad to flat out awful.

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