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Perpetuating a Needless Stem-Cell War

Obama's decision is bad ethics, bad science, and bad politics.

1:00 PM, Mar 9, 2009 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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President Obama today fulfilled his campaign promise to lift federal-funding restrictions on research involving the destruction of human embryos. He couldn't have done so at a more inappropriate time, for just last week scientists made headlines again announcing yet another breakthrough in what is known as "induced pluripotent stem-cell" technology. Following up on the initial breakthrough in November 2007 that allowed scientists to produce the biological equivalent of embryonic stem cells without creating, using, or destroying any human embryos, scientists have continued to refine their methods. Last week's announcement was the latest in a long string of developments. If Obama truly wants to find honorable compromises that the entire nation can accept in good conscience and even endorse, he should be promoting these alternative sources.

During the ceremony this morning, Obama announced that by signing this executive order "we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research." Of course there never was a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush was, in fact, the first president in history to fund embryonic stem cell research. The compromise Bush reached, however, put restrictions in place that prevented the further destruction of human embryos. It is these restrictions protecting human life that Obama has lifted.

Claiming that Bush's compromise was "a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama announced that "the two are not inconsistent." "As a person of faith," he continued, he believes that "we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering." Concretely, this means that "we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research--and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." How the destruction of tiny human lives fits into this humanity and conscience is not so clear.

Obama continued, noting that his stem-cell decision was just the starting point for a larger reevaluation of the role scientists will play in his administration: "It is about letting scientists like those 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."

But critics of human embryo-destructive research have never been hostile to science. The dispute is not about whether stem-cell science should proceed; it is about how it will proceed. Will it go forward in a way that respects all human life? Or will it regard the taking of human life in its early stages as justified by the desire to advance biomedical knowledge and seek therapies? Listening to scientists who tell us what they want to do doesn't mean we should give them a blank check; we need to determine if what they're proposing, especially when it's inconvenient for unborn human life, is what they should be doing.

And this isn't just some obscure pro-life worry. In 2007, when the great breakthrough of induced pluripotent stem cell technology was announced, both of the scientists behind the new technique explained the moral concerns that drove their research. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka told the New York Times: "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way." At the same time, Dr. James Thomson, the original discoverer of embryonic stem cells, told the Times: "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough. I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." He went on to add that because of this latest technique, "a decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote."

Yet this footnote becomes less funny as life-and-death decisions are made for political purposes despite the existence of sound scientific alternatives to human embryo-destructive research. After seven years and two campaigns of the Democrats attacking the Republicans over President Bush's stem-cell policy, Obama evidently thought he had to make good on his promise to promote and fund embryo-destructive research, even if it is now scientifically superfluous. And superfluous is exactly what the past year and a half of stem-cell breakthroughs have made it.