Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Science Versus Ignorance

Yesterday, as most who follow these things know, Pres. Obama lifted the Bush Administration's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In The Washington Post story on the event, there is a remarkable contrast given between Obama's and Bush's approach that is startling. First, Pres. Obama:
Obama said, "Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's also about protecting free and open inquiry."

"It's about letting scientists like those who are 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," Obama said to applause.


In his remarks to an audience that included people in wheelchairs and others using guide dogs, Obama said, "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. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent."

Now, from 2001, we have the words of former Pres. Bush:
In August 2001, President George W. Bush limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the 21 stem cell lines in existence at the time. Although he acknowledged the research value, Bush said that "extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life."

"Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being," Bush said in a nationally televised speech that offered a summary of his personal ethical debate on the subject

"Like a snowflake"? "Personal ethical debate"? Obama discusses the issue in terms of public policy. Bush talks like a kid in a church youth group.

Now, who does the Post decide to ask for commentary on Obama's decision? A scientist, perhaps? No. Yuval Levin. His cv at the end of his piece includes the information that he is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, described as a "socially conservative interest group." There isn't anything wrong with having a conservative comment on the policies of a moderately liberal executive. Yet, one wonders why they would make this choice, since Levin also served on the President's Council on Bioethics from 2003-2005. In other words, there might be thought a conflict here, no?

Anyway, Levin makes a bald statement as fact that is not really one:
What you think of his policy depends on what you think of the moral status of embryos. If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.(italics added)

While it is true that an embryo is certainly a stage in human development, to call an embryo a "human being" for legal purposes would be a stretch. I think it important to note that Levin mentions the Declaration of Independence, which has no legal standing in the United States, rather than the Constitution, precisely because the courts, federal and state, have said that an embryo is not, legally, a "person", which is the real issue.

A further note on Levin's column. He closes as follows:
Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities -- be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.

The problem, of course, is that the weight of ethical consideration is precisely on the side of further embryonic stem cell research. There are certainly voices all over, even scientifically-trained voices, that denounce such research. Yet, since science is about neither absolute certainty in a factual sense, and even less about truth in any sense whatsoever, but doing the best we can with the knowledge we currently posses; and since the knowledge we currently possess does not see an embryo as a human being in any sense, certainly not a legally protected one; and since the desire for research on embryonic human stem cells if most definitely guided by the ethical desire to find ways to treat illnesses, disorders, diseases, and injuries currently outside medicine's ability to treat effectively, it seems to me that Obama has most definitely considered the ethical balance, and come down foursquare on the side of ethical science.

And it's about time.

Virtual Tin Cup

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