Do scientists have a First Amendment right to do whatever they please?
12:00 AM, Sep 29, 2004 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
DOES THE FIRST AMENDMENT guarantee the right to conduct research into human cloning?
The question seems silly. But, according to the article Free to Clone written by biotech enthusiast Brian Alexander for the September 26, 2004 New York Times Magazine, the answer may be, yes. Indeed, if the legal scholars and bioethicists Alexander interviewed are right, conducting experiments in human cloning--not to mention other equally controversial areas of scientific inquiry--will one day be as constitutionally guaranteed as is my writing of this article.
The text of the First Amendment protects the rights to free speech, a free press, religious liberty, the ability to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. What it does not do is guarantee a right to engage in conduct.
But advocates of a so-called "right to research" ask what's the text got to do with it? They assert that scientific experiments should be protected by the First Amendment because, as one bioethicist told Alexander, science "really challenges or explores cultural or political norms," which, "is an act of rebellion . . . in the spirit of the First Amendment." In other words, because the results of some experiments could upset people and/or change their views about life, scientific experiments are actually advocacy, and hence, should be stretched into being perceived as a form of protected speech.
The just gearing-up advocacy campaign to equate research with political expression arises out of the ongoing clamorous debate over biotechnology. The Science and Bioethics Establishments are outraged by legislative attempts at the federal and state levels to outlaw human cloning and frustrated by the funding restrictions President Bush placed on embryonic stem cell research. To prohibit any future "political interference" with science, some scientists and biotech advocates want to permanently unmoor scientific inquiry from most societal regulation and control. Having the courts issue a cloning Roe v. Wade establishing a "right to research" would be just the ticket.
This entire brouhaha illustrates how influential the quasi-religion of "philosophical scientism" has become among the intelligentsia. Philosophical scientism perceives science as not just a powerful intellectual method for obtaining and applying knowledge, but also as the boulevard which leads directly to liberation and "Truth." In this view, science ceases to be a mere process but becomes an end that offers humankind its only real chance for salvation. Thus a recent paper published by the National Science Foundation entitled "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance," asserted ecstatically that if we but fund and unleash the power of science, "The twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment."
With so much allegedly at stake, scientism ideologues insist that scientists be given a virtually unfettered hand. In this view, scientific experiments can only be inhibited for extremely compelling reasons--to be decided by scientists themselves. As bioethicist Rahul K. Dhanda, put it condescendingly in his book Guiding Icarus: Merging Bioethics with Corporate Interests:
Whether science's pursuit of knowledge ought to eclipse the interests of society . . . remains less an issue than whether scientists know better than society. Authorities in biology, for instance, often take the stance that their knowledge affords them the better vantage point in social discussions, thus the layperson opposed to progress ought not to weigh in on the debate. Put another way, science knows what is good for society like a parent knows what is good for the child.
But the history of the last 100 years--think Joseph Mengele--demonstrates that science, like any human endeavor, can bring about terrible evil as well as incredible good. Moreover, through science, we now possess dangerous god-like powers to destroy as well as create. Wisdom and prudence thus prescribe that we do not leave all of this to the scientists, but instead erect reasonable checks and balances through democratic processes to ensure that the scope and breadth of research remain consistent with the moral values of society.
This means that our political institutions must be allowed to set reasonable parameters around the depth and scope of scientific inquiry. This important role of government would be thwarted if the Constitution is interpreted to include a right to research. Not only would it craft a narrow constitutional right open only to a very narrow category of people, e.g., scientists, but it would imbed the amoral beliefs of scientism into the Constitution, creating the possibility that rather than serving society, science would come to dominate it.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, will be released this fall by Encounter Books.