The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Obama's rhetoric this morning was notably toned-down. When speaking of Christopher Reeve, he expressed regret that Reeve was never able to walk again. He predicted that "if we pursue this research, maybe one day--maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children's lifetime--but maybe one day, others like him might." What happened to the promises from the Democratic Convention of 2004 that a personal repair kit was right around the corner? In fact, after a decade of research on embryonic stem cells (which, despite media spin, has remained legal even as federal funding was restricted), there are no clinically available treatments using embryonic stem cells. Only one study has been approved by the FDA for testing, and the tests have not begun. Meanwhile, after just 18 months of research on induced pluripotent stem cells, scientists are just a "hair's breadth" away.

Bad ethics and bad science, Obama's decision earlier this morning is bad politics, too. Obama ran on a platform of fulfilling George W. Bush's promise to be a uniter, not a divider--to be the president of the entire United States, and not just of special interests. He acknowledged this morning that "many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, [embryo-destructive] research." He said that he "understands their concerns" and that "we must respect their point of view." As such, he promised "that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted."

But by his actions today, Obama has shown himself to take unnecessarily divisive approaches to controversial questions. He has committed the nation--and all its taxpayers--to supporting unethical, lethal research. Beyond the objective wrong committed, this is likely to have political consequences: Given Obama's efforts to woo religious voters, this decision may come back to haunt him.

One has to wonder who's advising Obama on these issues, for even President Clinton's bioethics committee had concerns about embryo destruction:

In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research. But as we have noted, ES cells from embryos appear to be different in scientifically important ways from AS cells and also appear to offer greater promise of therapeutic breakthroughs. The claim that there are alternatives to using stem cells derived from embryos is not, at the present time, supported scientifically. We recognize, however, that this is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances [emphasis added].

While at the time, because alternatives didn't exist, they considered the research morally justified, they explicitly stated that this would have to be reevaluated in light of subsequent scientific advancements. Obama is ignoring these advancements and pledging federal dollars on research that needlessly destroys the lives of tiny developing human beings. Who is the one playing politics with science?

Of course, the stem-cell debates have never been about science. As Joseph Bottum and I argued
in the November issue of First Things, the furor over stem cells was fueled by numerous factors: patients' desperation in the face of illness and their hope for cures; the belief that biology can now do anything; the reluctance of scientists to accept any limits (particularly moral limits) on their research; the impact of big money from biotech stocks, patents, and federal funding; the willingness of America's elite class to use every means possible to discredit religion in general; and the need to protect the unlimited abortion license by accepting no protections of unborn human life. The most recent technological breakthroughs, sadly, change none of these facts. But they should.

Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.