Obama and embryonic stem cells

March 11, 2009

On Monday President Obama expanded federally-funded embryo-destructive research in the United States.  That he would do so was one of his campaign promises, and the decision is not a surprise.  What is surprising — at least a little — is the way it was done, and the way the media have handled the story.

First of all, what has changed?  News stories have not infrequently claimed or implied that Bush had banned stem cell research, but this is false.  Bush was a strong supporter of research on adult stem cells.  Likewise, it is not true to say that he had banned embryonic stem cell research, nor even that he banned federal funding for such research.  Instead, he restricted federal-funding for embryo-destructive research to those stem cell lines that had already been established.  New embryonic stem cells lines could be established, but research on them would have to be funded by private funds.  This policy pleased no-one — not those who believed these young human lives deserved legal protections, nor those who thought otherwise.  It was a classic political compromise.

As I understand it, Obama’s policy change is limited: he has extended federal funding to a larger set of existing embryonic stem cell lines.  I believe that he has not yet permitted the creation of new stem cell lines specifically for research purposes, nor has he permitted cloning of existing embryos in order to increase the harvest.  If this is wrong, please correct me.  Ominously, however, he promises in his speech that “we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction” [my emphasis].  It is unlikely that this wording is accidental; by specifically promising not to permit so-called reproductive cloning he implicitly leaves open the possibility that he will permit so-called therapeutic cloning.  The only difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning is that the latter is worse: reproductive cloning clones and lets live, while therapeutic cloning clones and kills.  If the day comes when therapeutic cloning is permitted, the law will actually mandate that cloned human beings be destroyed.  That would be a new low.

I encourage you to read the speech Obama delivered when he announced the change in policy.  It is quite a piece of work.  Consider this section:

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.

The basic message here is that scientists (in this case, embryonic stem cell researchers) should be free to do what they do without meddling interference from ideologues and moralists (by implication, Bush et al.).  They should make “scientific decisions” without non-scientific concerns getting in the way.  This is disturbing.  Anyone who does research in the human sciences knows that there are many, many restrictions governing what may be done, and rightly so.  Moreover, these restrictions are informed by moral judgments. Plainly: we do not want to take politics and morality out of science.

So the premise is wrong, but so is the application. We are meant to conclude that by making this policy change, Obama is doing precisely what he praises: getting politics and morality out of science.  But the decision whether or not to fund such research is not a scientific one; it is, ineliminably, political and moral.  To pretend otherwise is bad faith.

A detail of the policy change that has not, to my knowledge, been widely reported is that Obama didn’t stop at expanding embryo-destructive research.  He also revoked (in section 5(b)) the Bush policy of encouraging ethical alternatives to such research.  It is hard to understand why he would do this.  The Bush policy had the effect of encouraging adult stem cell research programs, and all indications are that such programs have been fantastically successful.  Adult stem cell research is unobjectionable to left and right, to liberal and conservative, to religious and secular.  It is precisely the kind of research that this allegedly “post-partisan” President would, if he were truly post-partisan, throw his support behind.  Instead, he has, very quietly, made a move against it.  This, as Ryan T. Anderson says in his fine commentary, is bad science, bad ethics, and bad politics.

I also note, parenthetically, a portion of the speech that I hope is just verbal puffery. Obama professes hope that embryo-destructive research will help bring about “a day when words like ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ are finally retired from our vocabulary”.   The goal is immortality?  We always knew he was ambitious.  My goodness, then we’ll really have good cause to kill our young.

In fairness, there are two aspects of Obama’s speech that deserve some praise.  First, he cautions that embryonic stem cell research may not be successful, and, when successful, may nevertheless take a long time to succeed.  This is a positive change from the days, not so long ago, when embryonic stem cells were held out as some sort of miracle cure, and sounds like an honest recognition of the scientific problems researchers have found when trying to work with embryonic stem cells.  Second, he does acknowledge that morally serious people are opposed to his policy change.  But those are words, and actions speak louder.

The media coverage that I have seen has been even worse than I expected.  They have seized on the theme that finally science has been liberated from religion and ideology, and have, for the most part, ignored the most important distinction, both scientifically and ethically — namely, between adult and embryonic stem cells.  The newspaper on the subway this morning announced that Obama had finally liberated science from “religous ideology” — except that it didn’t use scare quotes.  Stories from AP and Reuters failed to even mention adult stem cells.  The Toronto Star, one of Canada’s major newspapers, forgot to mention that adult stem cells have significant scientific advantages over embryonic ones without having any of the ethical problems, even though just last week they were trumpeting the triumph of adult stems cells on the front page, above the fold.  How quickly we forget.  The New York Times did a little better; they ran a story about alternatives to embryo-destructive research.  All in all, though, a pretty sad showing.


Related reading:
Anderson and Bottum: Stem Cells: A Political History

8 Responses to “Obama and embryonic stem cells”

  1. Janet Says:

    It is my belief that there are those that want, specifically, to use embryonic stem cells because they know that it is a weapon in the battle to keep abortion legal. When we come to see abortion as necessary to our health (well, not us, not me, not you) we won’t want to put that in jeopardy. Finding those cures in adult stem cells does away with this “need” for abortion.

    This line is interesting, “and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient.” It’s the sort of thing, isn’t it, that one would say about Scripture.

    AMDG, Janet

  2. Janet Says:

    You notice I have TWO icons–one for work and home, and the second for school. I wonder why the first two are the same. I think maybe I used a different email address on the school one.


  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    Craig, when I read news stories about stem cells I just put my head in my hands and almost despair, it’s always so woefully inadequate. I think most of the time in these articles it’s simply scientific ignorance, which unfortunately propagates to the public.

    The terms “therapeutic” and “reproductive” cloning are far more insidious. It’s clear doublespeak that’s trying to make one procedure seem like two–as though intention creates an ontology. This is one prediction of Orwell that is perennially true: that some politicians will manipulate language so that people cannot think as clearly about important issues.

  4. immortality is interesting. one line of theological reasoning goes that if adam and eve hadn’t sinned they wouldn’t have had any children. the angels are immortal, and so they don’t have children. i think this gets into thomism.

    but the point is, humans can’t have it both ways. we can’t live forever and continue to have children. it’s my opinion that all this stem cell debate is really about cloning.

    but i also think the debate between adult and embryonic stem cell use is disingenuous. either way it’s freaky and messing with the human person on a very intimate level.

  5. Excellent post. Now I can just link to it instead of writing my own.

    I think Janet is right. Abortion definitely lurks underneath this debate. I’m not sure how many of the pro-embryonic-research crowd is conscious of this. But this is a way of further cementing in law and practice that the embryo has no moral standing.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Janet, there are a number of reasons motivating the interest in stem cell research — desire for cures, but also political advantage, desire for money, and desire to entrench the inhumanity of the unborn. Only the last applies specifically to embryonic stem cells, which makes me very wary of those who demonstrate a particular interest in embryo-destructive research. There is a real problem for abortion rights advocates: they cannot grant protections to embryos without weakening their own position.

    Adam, I agree that the language is insidious. Politicians, and all who have a voice in the public square, really ought to read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” at least once each year.

    Welcome, Sully, and thanks for your comment. I’ve not seen any theological speculations along those lines. Scripture is quite clear, however, that we were created “male and female”, and that this was “very good”, not part of our fallen nature. It is certainly true, however, that terrestrial immortality with childbearing would, in the course of time, lead to some problems!

    I cannot agree that the distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells is disingenuous. On the contrary, it is essential and very significant. Research on adult stem cells may, of course, also be abused and directed to immoral ends (as can any medical research) but it does not involve any intrinsic evils.

  7. Reg Says:

    Nicely done Craig. I read a few news articles about Obama’s policy enactment and every one made it sound like, finally, stem cell research would receive government funding. Of course, very promising government funded research has been going on all the while. The implication that embryonic stem cell research is the only kind could be honest ineptness or underhanded chicanery, but either way, it makes the blood boil. As I read the articles, I kept hoping you’d post on it. Thank you!

  8. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for leaving a comment, Reg. I got the same impressions from the press, and writing this post was my way of working off my frustration.

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