Obama and Stem Cells, Continued

Obama and Stem Cells, Continued

Science, technology, and life.
March 11 2009 12:39 PM

Obama and Stem Cells, Continued

Is President Obama's decision to fund embryo-destructive stem-cell research purely scientific? Or is it also moral?

I say it's moral . So do two thinkers from opposite ends of the political spectrum. At the Hastings Center's Bioethics Forum , Daniel Callahan, a cofounder of the center, points out that supporters of stem-cell research have been wrong

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


to conflate opposition to stem cell research and a variety of other actions by the Bush administration. That administration was guilty of manipulating, or suppressing, scientific information on a wide range of issues, including global warming and sex education. I call that behavior patently anti-science as well as a misuse of government power. But its stem cell opposition did not encompass any distortion of the science of such research. That is not how it argued its case.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post , Yuval Levin, a former executive director of Bush's bioethics council, argues that

science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. ... To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities—economic, political and ethical—in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty.

One reason I like these two guys is that they're clear-eyed critics of spin and self-delusion, even when the spin and delusion are coming from their own allies . On the relationship between science and politics, I particularly recommend Levin's new book, Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy . He's right that Obama's decision doesn't moot or end the debate about using embryos. So let's honor that debate by continuing it.

Levin quotes President Kennedy, who said that many modern problems require

very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of 'passionate movements' which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men.

Against this "technocratic temptation," Levin argues for democratic oversight. In principle, I agree. But the comments I've received from readers about Obama's stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.

(By the way: To all of you who protested that torture is different from stem-cell harvesting: Of course it is. That's the nature of comparisons: The things being compared differ in many respects. The similarity in this case is that on both issues, moral objections are being dismissed as interference in a purely technical question of saving lives. That, not the merits of stem-cell research, was the point of the article .)

Second, Levin writes that in announcing his decision on Monday, Obama "argued that to deny free rein to stem cell science is to ignore and reject the promise of science as such." The president "pledged that his administration would 'make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,'" and his executive order "omits any mention of ethical debate."

I think what happened Monday is more complicated than that. Based on the spin that came out of the administration over the weekend , I expected Obama to make exactly the argument Levin describes. But he didn't. Among other things, Obama said :

Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans ... have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.


I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. 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.

Levin is right about Obama invoking facts over ideology. But that was in the context of Obama's memorandum on scientific issues generally .

It looks to me as though the administration hasn't resolved how it's going to treat these issues. The mentality Levin describes—burying moral objections and portraying embryo research as just another case of Bush's "war on science"—pervades most of the spin coming out of the White House and its feeder institution, the Center for American Progress . That's why the White House paired the stem-cell order with the announcement on restoring scientific integrity. But for some reason, Obama himself isn't entirely playing along. His remarks on Monday sounded a lot like what he has said about abortion and other social issues : acknowledging moral disagreement while striving for consensus or at least compromise. I think the administration is unresolved, and we should encourage it to acknowledge and grapple with the moral questions.

Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:

If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.

I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a 5-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can't buy that. I'm a gradualist. I value the 5-day-old embryo because it's on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it's not there yet. It hasn't acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

The Declaration says we're created with an unalienable right to liberty as well as life. But that hasn't stopped us from regulating liberties in proportion to maturity, as we do, for example, with curfews and driving. Why can't we exercise the same discretion with respect to life? Yes, life is a more basic right. But maybe that just means that instead of drawing lines after birth, as we do with liberty, we should confine our line-drawing about life to the period before birth.

Slippery slopes run both ways. Let's call that Human Nature's second law. If we don't draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we're so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

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