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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