Human Exceptionalism

“Stem Cell Debate is Over Ethics, Not Science”

I have a piece in today’s Sacramento Bee rounding out my critique of the Obama ESCR policy and his rescission of the Bush executive order requiring the Feds to fund alternative sources for funding of pluripotent stem cells. Some of this will be familiar to SHSers, but I think the points I make in the column are too little heard in the world beyond this blog. From my piece:

From the moment President George W. Bush imposed federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, Big Biotech, patient advocacy groups, celebrities and the media have been obsessed with eviscerating the policy. Indeed, although the Bush administration funded about $175 million in grants for human embryonic stem cell research, and despite the literally billions poured into the field from public and private sources such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, and philanthropists, the public was continually warned that embryonic stem cell research in the United States was in danger of withering on the vine due to Bush.

With such abundant funding, that wasn’t true. Nor was the charge that Bush’s policy was “anti-science” because it funded only research on stem cell lines in existence as of Aug. 9, 2001. But the controversy was never a science debate. It was–and remains–an ethics debate that impacts directly on the importance and meaning of human life. Indeed, the question raised by embryonic stem cell research is whether it is morally right to treat and exploit human life–even at the nascent stage–as a mere natural resource.

I discuss the point that President Obama’s new policy–he says–will also involve ethical controls:

Last week, the new president kept a campaign promise to free up federal funding for all embryonic stem cell lines whenever derived. But he also told the country that ethics still matter, stating: “We will support it (embryonic stem cell research) only if 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.”

How is that different in kind from what Bush did? Are ethical constraints “anti-science” only if one disagrees with where the lines are drawn

And I get into the Obama and CIRM hypocrisy over resisting legal requirements for the funding of “alternative” sources of pluripotent cells, such as IPSCs, and suggest that there is a reason for pushing embryonic methods:

If pursuing the best and most ethical science were truly the goals, why deflect increased support for this promising research to which no one objects? Perhaps it is because this debate involves more than stem cells taken from embryos “left over” from in-vitro fertilization–as the argument is usually couched–which brings us back to ethics. In the wake of the Obama changes in federal policy, the New York Times editorially threw down a gauntlet, calling for both the rescission of the Dickey Amendment and federal funding of human therapeutic cloning research. Now that the Bush restrictions are history, look for these battles–which again are not science debates–to flare in the years to come. In this sense, embryonic stem cell research threatens to become a launching pad to an ever-deepening erosion of the unique moral status of human life.

That’s my story, anyhow. And I’m sticking to it.


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