Obama's Stem Cell Policy

by Jay Johansen
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March, 2009 President Obama has reversed a Bush administration decision that limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research -- ESCR for short -- claim that it might ultimately lead to cures for all sorts of diseases, from diabetes to Alzheimers to cancer. Opponents point out that it requires killing the embryo, and an embryo is a tiny human being. They object to deliberately killing a human being, no matter how small, to benefit someone else.

President Bush tried to forge a compromise. He decreed that the federal government would only fund research using existing stem cell lines. That is, the government would not pay for research that involved killing more embryos, but it would fund research using those that were already dead. (The nature of the work being done is that it can continue for many years with the existing lines.) Researchers were also free to do this research if they could get funding from other sources. The research was not illegal, the government just wouldn't pay for it. (That said, in practice there is little available private funding for ESCR because after many years and millions of dollars of research it has yet to produce any actual cures or medical treatments, so the only likely source for additional money is the government.)

Obama's Position

President Obama reversed this decision. He opened federal funding of ESCR regardless of the source of the embryos. In his speech announcing this decision, he said, "But 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." A little later he said, "This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But letís be clear: promoting science isnít just about providing resources Ė 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 itís inconvenient Ė especially when itís inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda Ė and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

What did he mean by that? Did he mean that scientists should be free to do whatever they want, without any of the moral restrictions that might apply to lesser mortals? Suppose a scientist says that in order to do his important research, he must have the right to select anyone he wants and lock them in a room for years while he studies their behavior, or that he must amputate their arms and legs. Do we have to just let him do that, because scientists must be "free from manipulation or coercion"?

Fortunately this does not appear to be what Obama meant, because just before the "important step" comment quoted above he says, "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."

So Obama's position is that scientists must be free to pursue any research they want any way they want, without regard for ideological limits or moral values ... except that certain types of research are unacceptable for ideological and moral reasons.

So Mr Bush said that destroying embryos for research purposes -- such as ESCR -- is morally unacceptable. Mr Obama denounces this position as imposing ideology on scientific research. Mr Obama then says that creating embryos for research purposes -- such as cloning -- is morally unacceptable. This is apparently not imposing ideology on scientific research. Umm, what's the difference? Why is Mr Obama justified in saying that certain types of medical research are unacceptable, while Mr Bush is not justified in making a similar statement? You can study Mr Obama's entire speech, and you will not find one factual or moral distinction. The only reason given is that there is a "concensus" that ESCR is okay. He acknowledges that this "concensus" is not 100% and that there are moral issues with this research. "It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view." But this is just lip service, because he promptly goes on to say that there will be no limits on this research and that all those people whose point of view he respects will be forced to pay taxes which will be used to support research that they strongly oppose.

See Clips and Comment for the full text of the speech.

Posted Mar 18, 2009.

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