Restoring integrity to science?

As you've probably heard by now, President Obama has signed an executive order lifting the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Actually, you might have heard that he "lifted a ban on stem-cell research" (that's how a "snap poll" on local news station New York 1 described it). That's not true. Those other, missing words are important to understanding what's actually being done -- and why it's controversial.A story on NPR's "Morning Edition" quoted Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) saying that the ban on funding was one in a series of Bush Administration decisions prizing ideology over scientific evidence. But is opposing embryonic stem-cell research really the same as ignoring scientific evidence for global climate change, as she suggests? That seems like a careless analogy to me. I don't think most opponents of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research are denying the potential of said research. On the other hand, those who oppose government action to combat climate change generally argue that such measures are unwise (for a variety of reasons), not that they are morally wrong. This isn't as simple as one side seeing a need that the other doesn't acknowledge.Obama seems to understand that this doesn't come down to a difference of opinion on what constitutes conclusive scientific research. From his remarks:

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.

His own conclusion is arguably less careful:

[I]n 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. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

Still, he is a model of serious moral philosophy when compared with some other politicians who support the move. From the New York Times:

Today, an extraordinary medical breakthrough was achieved with the stroke of a pen, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. With todays executive order, President Obama has righted an immense wrong done to the hopes of millions of patients.

(Perhaps Senator Kennedy gets partial credit for at least making reference to morality?)To be fair to Congresswoman DeGette, the president's remarks -- and the memorandum he released today on "Scientific Integrity" -- do tend to suggest an equivalency among any and all science-related issues. The order, Obama said, "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 there's much to appreciate about that memorandum, broad rhetoric notwithstanding. Its provisions support this goal:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. ...The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

It may surprise some to learn that opponents of embryonic stem-cell research don't (necessarily) oppose those guidelines, although perhaps some do. I think that sounds wonderful... I'm just not sure it gets us very far when it comes to funding research on embryonic stem cells.Obama also promised, "We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse." On that topic, I recommend checking out Fr. Tom Reese's helpful analysis and suggested guidelines for research. Though his ideas "will not satisfy those who find any use of embryos ethically objectionable," he says, they "will indicate that the Obama administration is trying to find some middle ground that gives some respect to the many Americans who find such research repugnant. ...If science shows a way out of this ethical dilemma," he concludes, "we should follow it." Of course, that would require acknowledging that there is an ethical question in the first place, which is more than many people seem prepared to do.There's one more aspect of this whole debate that I can't quite get past. Here's how the president concluded his remarks:

There is no finish line in the work of science. The race is always with us the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like "terminal" and "incurable" are finally retired from our vocabulary.

Is that really our goal? Is medical science rightly understood as the pursuit of immortality? If there's one truly ironclad argument we can make from Natural Law, it's that life is a terminal condition. I'm not one to rail against big government, but even I'm skeptical that government (or science) should try to fix that particular problem.P.S. Also see David Gibson's take on Obama's action at Pontifications: he "split the baby." But does that make him Solomon?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads