“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” — James A. Thompson, the first scientist to isolate human embryonic stem cells, as quoted by Charles Krauthammer.
Krauthammer served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics and has recently characterized Bush’s widely vilified stem cell policy announced in 2001 as having been thoroughly vindicated. How so? First, because he had the courage of his convictions that a moral line had to be drawn; and second, by supporting research that might lead to the production of stem cells of adult origin, thereby bypassing the need for creation of human embryos for research purposes. The successful result of this research having now been achieved, there is now a plentiful and, according to reliable scientific authorities, an even more productive source of stem cells. Thus, the complete vindication of Bush’s courage and confidence, which, not so incidentally, was articulated by him at the time in a speech that was delivered with fairness, balance, and due respect for the moral seriousness of the issue.
Now comes President Obama, who delivered on one of his campaign promises by reversing the Bush policy on federal research on embryonic stem cells and, by so doing, returned the issue to the political arena in a way that is disingenuous at best and anti-democratic at worst. First, he has not only needlessly reversed the policy restricting embryo-destructive research funding, but he has reversed the order that encourages the National Institute of Health to further pursue non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells. Of course, this is exactly the kind of “in your face” rejection of Bush policy that is red meat for Bush-haters and food for Obama’s leftist base.
But second, and at least as important, as Robert George so well described in a recent article, far from “removing politics from science” as he has claimed, Obama’s decision is simply anti-democratic. The question of whether to allow the destruction of human embryos for research purposes is fundamentally a moral and civic question about the uses and limitations of science, not a scientific question. On this most basic of considerations on this issue, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves full discretion to the scientists, a complete abdication to scientism.
So the politics of the issue will continue and, in fact, will escalate; the question now is whether it will play out in an orderly fashion through a deliberative democratic process. (On this last point, I am pleased to note that the Texas Legislature is taking on the issue through healthy debate on legislation now pending.)
Obama’s decision will almost certainly provide new incentives for taxpayer funding of federal stem cell research, which will in turn produce new incentives for destruction of human embryos, a huge supply of which will be the “leftovers” from invitro fertilization (IVF) clinics, an issue which has acquired significant prominence, as highlighted by such extremes as the recent case of the “octomom”.
Leon Kass, the former Chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, warned as early as 1972 that IVF would one day pose almost insoluble dilemmas, the most consequential of which is the changing conception of ourselves, what it means to be human, and “the erosion of our idea of man as something splendid or divine, as a creature with freedom and dignity; and clearly, if we come to see ourselves as meat, then meat we shall become.”
As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted in a great essay on the IVF issue, the problem of mass creation and destruction of “excess embryos” illustrates that some slopes are indeed slippery. And it’s not as though some very thoughtful people haven’t warned us. As the man said, if this doesn’t bother you, you need to think again and more deeply.