Obama’s stem cell flop

posted by David Gibson

How many ways did Barack Obama go wrong in yesterday’s policy change on stem cell research? Here are a few of the larger themes, and some able dissections of them:

ONE: Why didn’t Obama say more about the promise of adult stem cells–and do something to promote that promise? He said that the administration will support “promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.” And yet his executive order yesterday also revoked Executive Order 13435 of June 20, 2007, which provided federal backing for promising adult stem cell research. At First Things, Wesley J. Smith slams this dumb rejection of easily occupied common ground.

ADDENDUM: As a commenter rightly noted in the combox, Obama had to reverse Bush’s EO 13435 because of language tacked on to it about embryos as human life etc. (A nice little time bomb left behind.) And Wesley Smith could have and should have noted that. But Obama could easily have included Bush’s language, or his own, regarding funding and support for adult stem cell research promotion. Easy, and would have been important in concrete and symbolic terms.  

TWO: The decision, despite a few cautionary notes by the president, perpetuates the Holy Grail of magical cures for terrible diseases–and invoked the appealing but groundless Christopher Reeve example. Obama said: “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.” Well, likely not. And not for anyone but the wealthiest in the richest nations. The poor will be with us always, and so will suffering, alas–for all of us. At The Weekly Standard, Ryan Anderson takes apart the “bad ethics, bad science, and bad politics” of Obama’s decision.

THREE: Anderson also gets at the other problem with Obama’s speech–saying the previous Bush policy was “a false choice between sound science and moral values.” No, there are ethical concerns with any scientific endeavor. To say that is not the case is to embrace another type of ideology. Obama’s language conflates stem cell research and its undeniable moral ramifications and, for example, climate change. Apples and oranges. At The Washington Post, Yuval Levin drives a truck through the gap in Obama’s reasoning. Also read Anthony Stevens-Arroyo for a Catholic view of the same problem.

FOUR: Slate’s William Saletan hits a home run–as usual–with a pointed essay, “Winning Smugly: You just won the stem-cell war. Don’t lose your soul.”  Saletan writes, in part: 

Think about what’s being dismissed here as “politics” and “ideology.” You don’t have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings–I don’t–to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It’s the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously–if you think it’s just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers–try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma. [snip]

And as technology advances, the dilemmas will become more difficult. Already, researchers are clamoring to extend Obama’s policy so they can use federal money to create and destroy customized embryos, not just use the ones left over from fertility treatments. The danger of seeing the stem-cell war as a contest between science and ideology is that you bury these dilemmas. You forget the moral problem. You start lying to yourself and others about what you’re doing.

Read the whole thing, if you read nothing else.

FIVE…The Future: Obama punted on some of the most contentious questions, and the WaPo has a good story on the critical NIH decisions over the next 120 days that it has to formulate an ethical framework (which Obama indicated wasn’t need, sort of). Today’s Washington Post editorial also sums up the tough decisions the president avoided, and asks for more from him: “Some of these ethical questions need to be dealt with in the political arena, and not just by scientists.”    




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Your Name

posted March 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Your criticism #1 (that Obama invalidated the adult stem cell executive order) is unwarranted. If you go to the actual text of that Executive Order (which the First Things blog post conveniently fails to cite) you see that it does NOT represent any kind of middle ground; instead, it it thoroughly permeated with the Bush Administration’s ban on embryonic stem cell research. Here’s one exerpt that makes this undeniably clear:
“(c) the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another;
(d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species,
are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and
Obama’s own words were very clear — he is not going to close off any avenues of research. Instead, unlike Bush, he’s going to allow the *scientists* to engage in “research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.” How much more clear do you need it put? The claim that Obama is somehow stifling adult stem cell research is cynical and misleading.

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Your Name

posted March 10, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Oh, and I resent Saletan’s view that by “winning” the embryo research we are somehow in danger of forgetting the “moral problem.” Like so much of the talk about “values” by social conservatives, this criticsim obscures the fact that social liberals *have* a moral viewpoint and work hard to consider the ethics of the situation. Just because we have reached a different conclusion after our own ethical analysis (and now have the political power to implement it) does not mean that we have suddenly forgotten about morals and ethics altogether.

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Charles Cosimano

posted March 10, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Moral problems are only problems for those who worry about morality.

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David Gibson

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:14 pm

To the poster of the first two comments: I’d like to respond, but I’d like you to leave your name, sted of “Your Name.”
Also, I can’t make sense of your first comment. You say the Obama order is “permeated” with the Bush policy, then you seem to say Obama is taking a different path by opening up to science. Please calirfy. Thanks.

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Your Name

posted March 10, 2009 at 3:40 pm

I posted the first comment and second comments, and I apologize if they were unclear. What I was trying to say is that the Bush Executive Order # 1345 on adult stem cell research that Obama invalidated is an anti-embryonic stem cell order, not just a pro-adult stem cell order. Here’s the full text: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/07-3112.pdf.
When you read the full text of Bush’s EO #1345, it becomes obvious that the order is INEXTRICABLE from the anti-embryonic stem cell position of the Bush administration. For example, Bush’s order states that “the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another.”
The First Things post (and by incorporation, your post) suggests that by invalidating Bush’s EO #1345, Obama is somehow demonstrating that he does not in fact support adult stem cell research. But when you actually bother read the text of what Obama invalidated, you realize that he HAD to invalidate it in order to allow embryonic stem cell research to proceed.
It is incorrect to conclude that Obama is anti-adult stem cell just because he invalidated Bush’s EO #1345. Instead, Obama is now allowing scientists to pursue *every* avenue of stem cell research. There’s absolutely no evidence that he’s going to supress adult stem cell research, which is what First Things seems to be suggesting.

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David Gibson

posted March 10, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Just a scream of bloody frustration at Beliefnet’s commenting system!
Last three comments have been lost. And I’m the bloody author.
Why we have the worst system in the blogosphere I do not knwo.
I’ll try to provide comments later, if this one goes through.

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posted March 10, 2009 at 6:12 pm

When Captcha expires, cut your comments, then paste them after clicking on the button (learned it the hard way myself)

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David Gibson

posted March 10, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Tom, thanks for the reminder. It looks like my earlier lament about posting comments didn’t even go through. Anyway…
Your Name: You make a valid point, that Obama had to invalidate Bush EO 13435 because of the “poison pill” language tacked on at the end. And Smith at First Things could have and should have noted that. Needless to say, Obama could also have retained in his superseding order the Bush language (or his own) about promoting research on pluripotent adult stem cells.
That would have been easy to do, and would have sent an impirtant symbolic and practical message.

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posted March 10, 2009 at 9:20 pm

“When Captcha expires, cut your comments, then paste them after clicking on the button (learned it the hard way myself)”
Why they have not moved to a membership system similar to the message boards section of Beliefnet is beyond my understanding. But, the right hand seldom notices the nice basket carried by the left.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:59 pm

“Obama had to reverse Bush’s EO 13435 because of language tacked on to it about embryos as human life etc. (A nice little time bomb left behind.)”
I guess that quote is as good a place to start as any. Bush’s “time bomb” is a statement of biological reality. The President’s words:
“(d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold”
As a biologist, I do not see the issue here. The human embryo is a new human organism in a distinct developmental stage, one that we all went through in the continuum of development from fertilization until death. The embryo is alive. Its most fundamental biological identity is contained within its genetic complement, its genome. Its essence therefore is human. Its genetic identity is human. Its cellular biochemistry and physiology is human. Its ultrastructure is human. Its developmental trajectory from the outset is human. Its species is human. These are undeniable facts (unless one has a two million dollar grant in to NIH for embryonic stem cell research, in which case they are definitely nothing more than pre-human products of in vitro conceptus with no ontological or moral worth at all).
Seriously, “human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species,” is a pretty self-evident reality to this biologist and many others. The rub comes in here with the implied personhood status, “are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold.”
If one accepts the biological reality of the human embryo, then one MUST accept the reality that the human organism in that particular moment of its developmental continuum is not a commodity, not raw material for histological manipulation. There is no moral difference here than there was in the institution of slavery in the United States.
The late Moral Theologian Msgr. William Smith used to say, “All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering.” It was entirely one thing to outright deny personhood status to human embryos and fetuses for the purpose of aborting them. Now, we deny that they are “living members of the human species”? We refer to that biological reality as “a nice little time bomb left behind” by President Bush? They aren’t dead whales.
This is another front in the abortion war. And it’s very VERY dangerous ground for pro-choicers.
Pro-lifers couldn’t gain any traction in the abortion debate because both sides were arguing different points. Pro-lifers were arguing the human identity and status of the baby about to be killed and the pro-choicers were arguing the right of a woman to do what she will with her body. So, for 36 years this has been the stalemate.
Embryonic stem cell research strips away the pro-choice smokescreen of the woman’s right over her body and leaves us face-to-face with the embryo standing on its own in a petri dish. Now we ask, what is it? He pro-choice crowd asserts that it is not a living member of the human species.
Desperation often reduces the desperate to the absurd. It is precisely because it is such a potent member of our species that many see gold in the stored embryo. Those embryos also confront the pro-choice left with an issue it has dodged for 36 years.
Bill Donohue raised a legitimate issue. If we deny the human identity and personhood status of members of our species in their embryonic stage of development, then we are indeed on the slippery slope. I’ll go further.
We already kill babies in the end of the second trimester and throughout the third, and simply throw away their bodies as medical waste. How long will it be before these same proponents of ESC research start pushing for fetal farming? It’s really nothing more involved than the abortions that take place now, except we would harvest the organs and tissues. Why not? It’s the killing that’s the objectionable part, and far too many already accept it. If society can accept a mother killing her child because mom isn’t ready to be a mom, then will organ harvesting to save a life not seem all the more noble a reason for killing the baby? When that day dawns, we will have arrived back in mid-twentieth century Germany.
This is high-tech cannibalism David. Where do you stand on the identity and status of the human embryo?

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 10:21 am

What about the self contradiction: Paraphrasing Obama: We can’t have morality overrule science when it comes to stem cell research. A few minutes later: We’re never going to allow unethical cloning. (Republican) morality = bad; (Democratic) ethics = good.

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

If you think that a woman’s right to control her own body is merely a “smokescreen” to the pro-choice movement, you’ve entirely missed the point.
Although it is not ususually articulated this way by the pro-choice professional advocates, to the normal, everyday, pro-choice American (the majority of the nation) it has *always* been a question of balancing the rights of the embryo/fetus with the rights of the mother. That is why, for example, the vast majority of Americans will agree that the 9-year old Brazilian girl was entitled to her abortion — even if she wasn’t physically threatened by the pregnancy. It’s simply a common sense balance of interests, and the conclusion is that the harm to the raped 9-year old girl overwhelmingly outweighs the harm to the 15-week old fetuses, which as of yet have no thoughts, emotions, or signficant feelings.
Similarly, the question of the rights of the embryo in scientific research is a question of balance — the rights of the cluster of cells (and here, truly, it is a cluster of cells) vs. the potential benefit to humanity (thinking, feeling, humanity, not inert cells) of the research. To most Americans, the outcome of this balance is also clear — research wins over a cluster of cells.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Your Name,
” it has *always* been a question of balancing the rights of the embryo/fetus with the rights of the mother.”
I respectfully submit that Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton, handed down the same day, have the combined effect of giving the unborn absolutely no rights at all. Their existence is entirely dependent on the decision of the mother. There are no rights being balanced. There are now over 50 million dead babies since those terrible decisions in 1973. Some balancing act.
“15-week old fetuses, which as of yet have no thoughts, emotions, or signficant feelings.”
The relative stage of development with associated function does not change the fundamental reality of the new human organism engaged in the dynamic process of growth and development. The developmental stages and related functions are specific to our species. How then does one define out of our species members who are undergoing species-specific development, precisely because they are engaged in species-specific development?
It’s easy to dismiss that new individual as a clump of cells, if that’s the stage that presents us with raw materials for research. It’s easy to dismiss the 15 week fetus as being cognitively underdeveloped, if that’s the point we wish to abort. It’s easy to justify later term abortions when the central nervous system is very well along in development and the baby will experience excruciating agony, if we find that the baby will be handicapped and we don’t want the drag of a handicapped child.
Yes, smokescreen is most appropriate. It is a woefully misguided understanding of the political and scientific reality to suggest that there are rights being balanced, or that a human being at any stage of development can be defined out of the species precisely because it exists in a species-specific stage of development and function.
God Bless

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 2:39 pm

With all due respect, you fail to understand how most people engage in moral reasoning. This has nothing to do with legally determined rights, nor with your disembodied, hyper-technical philosophical reasoning. This has to do with how people actually make decisions when faced with these issues in their real lives.
Most people, in weighing their decisions and passing judgment on others, do not see these issues in the terms of absolute “fundamental realities” that you wish to proclaim. Instead, when making their own decisions, they weigh the balance of harms. And I’m sorry, but for all your philosophizing, the majority of American people will *never* agree that the rights of a 15-week old fetus outweigh the rights of a raped 9-year old girl; nor will they ever agree that a several-celled embryo has more rights than humanity as a whole does to the advancement of medicine.
Your utter failure to consider the harms created by your absolutist position render you very unpersuasive. You need to justify why you balance the harms like you do, rather than just sticking your head in the sand and pretending the harms do not exist. But that would require you to engage sympathetically and empathetically with the other side, which I am not sure you can do.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 11, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Your Name,
“You need to justify why you balance the harms like you do, rather than just sticking your head in the sand and pretending the harms do not exist. But that would require you to engage sympathetically and empathetically with the other side, which I am not sure you can do.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said it all:
“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
It doesn’t matter that most people choose to place their concerns over harm to another. That you describe such decision making as a balance of harms indicates that you understand that harm is indeed being done to the defenseless so that the stronger may personally profit.
That’s called predation.
My sympathies lie with both sides. The first order of business is to ensure the right to life for all. Then, we can go about the pursuit of therapeutics with honesty and integrity. Yes, REAL moral reasoning involves a technical, systematized approach using philosophy and theology. The alternative is Jerry Springer morality by consensus. That may be the way most people do morality, but it doesn’t make it right.
By definition, morality begins with universal truths (pesky little things called PRINCIPLES). These principles/truths apply to all people, in every age, in every place. THEY are the standard against which we are to measure our behavior. We don’t start with our own wants in order to determine who gets screwed so that we get what we want. That’s called narcissism.
I have to run, there’s another ostrich that’s about to take my hole in the sand.
God Bless

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posted March 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Slate’s William Saletan’s piece was written very well and made interesting points. I didn’t, however, find the comparison between torture and stem cells to be an enlightening one. When one thinks about ethics, trying to compare two separate issues is usually not very helpful because each venue of ethics is very different. For example, I could compare stem cell research to nuclear proliferation and would end up confusing the reader. I could compare torture to pre-emptive war and confuse the reader. It seems to me that ethical discussions need to focus on a single issue at a time, but maybe that’s just me.
One thing that people like to do is separate the stem cell debate from
in vitro fertilization (IVF). People seem to be generally ok with IVF
because it lets a potential mom be a mom through the use of
technology. However, the technology of IVF is somewhat flawed and
requires the production of additional embryos. These extra embryos are
then discarded. No one seems to have any problem with this. But as
soon as a scientist proposes researching these extra embryos, then all
of a sudden people start to have a ethical problem. Basically, people
who are ok with IVF but oppose stem cell research are saying: it is ok
to create life artificially and toss a fraction of that life in the
trash, but don’t you dare do anything with that extra fraction of
life. This is an easy-out and lets people feel good about helping
people to be mothers and also feeling like they are ethical, but it is
a logical fallacy.
I haven’t really decided my position on IVF. I mean, who wants to tell
a woman who wants to be a mother that she can’t be? At the same time,
though, I don’t really know if it is ok to create her a bunch of
embryos and implant them into her and throw away all the excess.
It is a very complicated issue, but I think as long as IVF treatment
is standard in the US, the extra embryos should be used for a good
cause. Unlike nuclear bombs, at least stem cell technology is clearly
aimed toward curing human disease. I am always a believer in taking
multiple approaches, so I hope that we try to get as much out of adult
stem cells and induced stem cells as we can, but really only embryonic
stem cells have the greatest potential to cure disease, especially in
the near future. It may take 10 years to find a Parkinson’s cure with
embryonic stem cells, but 100 years to find a cure with adult or
induced stem cells.

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posted March 12, 2009 at 9:55 am

Ethical concerns with *any* scientific endeavour? Really?
What are the ethical concerns with, say, understanding the composition of Dark Matter?

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John Lubeck

posted April 10, 2009 at 5:03 pm

As a life-long if not fully practicing Catholic, I’ve embraced the Catholic church if not fully it’s ideology for 50+ years. To me, the Catholics were different from the religious zealots of other faiths. At least in my early days, and at least in the church that I grew up in, those of us that sinned in what-ever manner the church deemed at the moment, either by being homosexual, or by marrying out of the church, or by getting an abortion may have been criticized, but they were still welcomed into the church as just another of God’s human with human frailties.
Today’s church has removed itself from that view. Today’s church is now part of that religious zealotry. Today’s church now deems incompetent, ignorant, deceitful and corrupt leaders like the Bush and Cheney administration to be fit leaders and intelligent, honest men like Barrack Obama to be unacceptable.
For me, the decision is over. It is clear that the Catholic church is no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem. From now on, I will do my best to help to remove the Catholic church along with the rest of the conservative criminals who ran our country from the last 8 years from society.

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posted April 12, 2009 at 8:43 am

I wonder why people not not have an issue when the embryo’s are dis graded and thorn in the trash when they are not used in invetro. The church really needs to catch up and be reasonable or they will continue to loose followers. I would rather the few cells be used to help the greater good, rather than site in a trash can.

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posted July 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

I understand the great benefits of stem cell research; however, I have a problem with this type of sciencific study breaching to close to God’s work. I don’t think man should be cloning animals or humans. I can not support taking the life of an unborn child and any digestial age for the possible support of another life.

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