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March 09, 2009

President Obama's stem-cell-research statement

The order is here:  "The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law."  The accompanying statement is here.

Many will, of course, welcome this (entirely predictable) policy shift.  And, no doubt, in some quarters, the President's concession that "[m]any thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research" and his statement the he "understand[s] their concerns" and thinks "we must respect their point of view" will be seen not as empty, cynical, or patronizing, but instead as indicating moderation, civility, and thoughtfulness. 

It strikes me that -- wholly and apart from the coming policy, which I believe is horribly misguided -- the statement is a mess. 

We have been told, time and again, that President Bush "politicized" what should have been a "scientific" issue -- or worse, that he imposed "religious" strictures on scientific progress. Now, though, we hear Pres. Obama saying "[a]s a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research -- and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." 

Of course, few would disagree with the statement that "we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering."  To say this is to say little. The question is, what does it mean to do so "responsibly"?  Where will the limiting criteria -- which, according to the President, and notwithstanding the "keep politics out of science" mantra, will be in place -- come from?  "Science", of course does not supply them. 

I wish we could drop the pretense that we are moving from a "politics and religion trumping science" regime to a "responsible science" regime, and simply admit that we are moving instead from "science constrained by one set of moral commitments" to "science constrained by a different set of moral commitments".  We could then ask whether the moral commitments in the new regime are really the ones we hold, and really up to the job of preventing horrible injustices.   

Consider this:

We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

I agree with the President that cloning for human reproduction (like human cloning for other purposes) is "profoundly wrong", but I am not sure how "science" supplies this moral conclusion.  (That is, I am sure that it does not.)  Why, exactly, is it profoundly wrong?  Presumably, there is a reason -- and, again, it is not "science" that is supplying that reason.  Why, in a statement that insists the autonomy and integrity of science, does the President think it is appropriate to lecture scientists that what many people believe is a fascinating new research frontier is "profoundly wrong", and has "no place in our society, or any society." 

A friend offered this explanation to me, when I asked why it was alright for a "keep politics out of science" Administration to proceed in this way:

Because that’s not a “political judgment.”  It’s a moral judgment.  And you see, when a Catholic says that cloning is “gravely wrong,” and he disagrees with Pres. Obama on stem cell research, he’s making a religious judgment that has no place in government.  And when a non-Catholic says that cloning is “gravely wrong,” well if the non-Catholic disagrees with Obama on stem cell research, that’s a “political judgment” and an intrusion of “politics” into “science.”  But when a non-Catholic says that cloning is “gravely wrong,” well if the non-Catholic agrees with Obama on stem cell research, that’s a “moral judgment” which is important for science to respect, because very deeply felt by Obama and only those who agree with him.  And when a Catholic says that cloning is “gravely wrong,” well if the Catholic agrees with Obama on stem cell research, then that’s a “moral judgment” made by a man or woman of faith attuned to the complexities of the mystery of existence and the heart of liberty important for science to respect. . . .

The President concludes with this:

 

There is no finish line in the work of science. The race is always with us -- the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like "terminal" and "incurable" are finally retired from our vocabulary. . . .

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America.

Wow.

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 9, 2009 at 03:03 PM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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