Life & Science

No one was shocked when President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research put in place by George W. Bush. Obama was, after all, fulfilling a campaign promise—albeit a misguided one—and his decision enjoys strong bipartisan support. What did surprise, however, was Obama’s explanation for this policy.

The president’s executive order authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund and conduct embryonic stem-cell research that entails the destruction of human embryos, something President Bush had banned eight years ago. Hundreds of thousands of embryos left over from infertility treatments exist, and nearly all of them will eventually be discarded. Some argue that using these embryos for scientific research that has the potential to develop cures for pathologies such as paralysis and Parkinson’s disease is morally justified. Those opposing such research counter that destroying nascent human life even for therapeutic purposes crosses a bright moral line. The logic used to justify the destruction of embryos can easily be extended to the exploitation of more fully developed human beings who are judged to be expendable, unwanted, or otherwise useless. (Some scientists already favor harvesting organs from aborted fetuses to meet the demand for kidney and liver transplants.)

In trying to balance these competing moral claims, Bush permitted research to go forward on stem-cell lines that had already been developed, but stopped further government funding of research that involved embryo destruction. In explaining his decision, Bush showed himself to be uncommonly sensitive to the moral issues involved, and especially to the divisive consequences of using taxpayers’ money to support scientific research that many Americans find morally abhorrent. He also strongly supported adult stem-cell research, which has subsequently shown extraordinary promise, and is ethically unproblematic.

Unfortunately, President Obama demonstrated little of that sensitivity in his recent remarks, choosing instead to obfuscate the moral dilemma by resorting to imprecise talk about the supposedly self-evident authority of scientific “facts” and the alleged ideological agenda of those opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. True, the president acknowledged that “thoughtful and decent people” disagree on the question, yet much of the political spin coming out of the administration implied that those opposed to embryonic stem-cell research are little different from those in the Bush administration who fudged data to contest the reality of global warming. “In recent years, when it comes to stem-cell research...our government has forced a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama declared. But he never explained why the choice was false in this instance. Instead, he handed off the problem to the NIH, which will soon issue new research guidelines. Yet any guidelines for the treatment of human embryos will require moral and political judgments, not merely scientific assessment. The president’s squishy rhetoric elided that fact. Of special concern is whether the new guidelines will allow the creation of embryos solely for research purposes. They should not. Many people not opposed to using discarded embryos to cure illness balk at the idea that human life will now be created only to be used for spare parts. The NIH guidelines should also ban the selling of embryos.

Bioethicist Daniel Callahan has written in these pages about the seduction and dangers of the “research imperative,” a set of unexamined assumptions about “progress” that distorts our understanding of the legitimate goals and proper uses of medical science. According to Callahan, the benefits of new discoveries and cures are routinely oversold. Meanwhile, the more basic health-care needs of millions go ignored. Moral reasoning and political deliberation, not the scientific community, should set health-care priorities and the conditions for research on human life. The United States, it is important to recall, has not always had a happy history when it comes to harnessing the power of science. In the first half of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement helped bring about the forced sterilization of sixty thousand “unfit” Americans, including the blind, the deaf, and the epileptic. The American Medical Association and the National Science Foundation endorsed those procedures. Eugenics was the cutting-edge biological science of its day.

Yes, the Bush administration sometimes twisted science to suit a political agenda—especially when it came to global warming. But in setting a different course, the new president must not allow scientific research to steer clear of ethical scrutiny. The choice in this case is not between “sound science” and “moral values,” but between genuine ethical reflection and empty rhetoric.

Published in the 2009-03-27 issue: 
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