Published March 10, 2009
Yesterday President Barack Obama issued an executive order that authorizes expanded federal funding for research using stem cells produced by destroying human embryos. The announcement was classic Obama: advancing radical policies while seeming calm and moderate, and preaching the gospel of civility while accusing those who disagree with the policies of being “divisive” and even “politicizing science.”
Mr. Obama's executive order overturned an attempt by President George W. Bush in 2001 to do justice to both the promise of stem-cell science and the demands of ethics. The Bush policy was to allow the government to fund research on existing embryonic stem-cell lines, where the embryos in question had already been destroyed. But it would not fund, or in any way incentivize, the ongoing destruction of human embryos.
For years, this policy was attacked by advocates of embryo-destructive research. Mr. Bush and the “religious right” were depicted as antiscience villains and embryonic stem-cell scientists and their allies were seen as the beleaguered saviors of the sick. In reality, Mr. Bush's policy was one of moderation. It did not ban new embryo-destructive research (the president had no power to do that), and it did not fund new embryo-destructive research.
“Moderate” Mr. Obama's policy is not. It will promote a whole new industry of embryo creation and destruction, including the creation of human embryos by cloning for research in which they are destroyed. It forces American taxpayers, including those who see the deliberate taking of human life in the embryonic stage as profoundly unjust, to be complicit in this practice.
Mr. Obama made a big point in his speech of claiming to bring integrity back to science policy, and his desire to remove the previous administration's ideological agenda from scientific decision-making. This claim of taking science out of politics is false and misguided on two counts.
First, the Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos. Inexplicably — apart from political motivations — Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.
Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is in the deepest sense antidemocratic. The question of whether to destroy human embryos for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.
For those who believe in the highest ideals of deliberative democracy, and those who believe we mistreat the most vulnerable human lives at our own moral peril, Mr. Obama's claim of “taking politics out of science” should be lamented, not celebrated.
In the years ahead, the stem-cell debate will surely continue — raising as it does big questions about the meaning of human equality at the edges of human life, about the relationship between science and politics, and about how we govern ourselves when it comes to morally charged issues of public policy on which reasonable people happen to disagree. We can only hope, in the years ahead, that scientific creativity will make embryo destruction unnecessary and that as a society we will not pave the way to the brave new world with the best medical intentions.
—Mr. George is professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008) and on the Board of Directors at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Cohen, an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is editor-at-large of The New Atlantis and author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (Encounter, 2008).