In a move that shocked no one, President Barack Obama reversed President George W. Bush’s executive order to ban government-funded human embryonic stem cell (ESC) research on new embryonic stem cell strains. This decision has caused many to rejoice and many to lament.
Some question the timing: lifting the stem cell research funding ban is a political win for Obama at a time when he’s losing public opinion ground on the economy. It also puts Republicans on defense — moderates and Democrats favor embryonic stem cell research, while conservatives dislike it. Moderate Republicans welcome the policy shift because they view the issue as a political loser and want it off the table.
A couple things to clarify: First, existing lines of human embryonic stem cell research continued throughout the Bush administration. Second, human embryonic stem cell research was not banned generally, nor was any other kind of stem cell research banned. The previous executive order specifically prevented government funds from being used for embryonic stem cell research. Third, human embryonic stem cell research is just a subset of stem cell research. Stem cells can be found everywhere — bone marrow, blood, fat, and skin all contain stem cells and umbilical cord blood has very pluripotent stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research is one part of this research. Every other kind of stem cell research continued to receive federal grant money. Finally, embryonic stem cell research may be history anyway because it’s unnecessary.
These clarifications are important. The press, the left, and even some on the right have purposefully misrepresented President Bush’s position about stem cells, making it seem like he hated stem cell research in particular and science generally. This was a simplistic view meant to reinforce the image of Bush as a bible-beating, anti-science zealot rather than a man sensitive to the ethical concerns of using the citizenry’s money to fund research which many voters view as morally ambiguous.
President Obama reinforced this inaccurate view by taking jabs at President Bush saying, “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”
President Obama made it sound as if scientists themselves are devoid of ideology and politics. One only has to examine the overwhelming amount of breast cancer research compared to every other kind of cancer research, to know that this is simply not true:
As for breast cancer, the second most lethal malignancy in females, investigation in that field has long received more funding from the National Cancer Institute than any other tumor research, though lung cancer heads the list of fatal tumors for both sexes.
When government funds are used, politics necessarily plays a part in what does and does not get funded. Scientists know this, politicians know this, and citizens should know this. (Latest example: nuclear power. Want politics to drive scientific inquiry? Look at anything related to global warming.)
Ideology forms the foundation for why people are pro-embryonic stem cell research, too. People who are pro-abortion and view what is left over from infertility treatments as discarded tissue, believe that embryonic stem cell research is a good way to use that material. And yet, even here, the ethics are sticky and the debate is not confined to the hallowed halls of the temple or church. The scientific journal Nature featured a well-thought out article by John Robertson about these ethics (it’s worth reading the whole thing to understand the complexities).
In short, it is not frivolous or unscientific to question using human embryos for scientific study. It’s responsible.
One also does not have to be an ideologue to question where embryonic stem cell research is heading. Cloning is at the forefront of many discussions. President Obama knows this and came out against human cloning.
He said, “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.”
Why? If a family loses a child and can create a clone, who is President Barack Obama to impose his morality on that family? There may well be good scientific research that shows human cloning to be “safe” when “responsibly done”.
And, as Katherine Jean Lopez notes, “Notice the qualifier. Cloning is fine for research — ‘therapeutic cloning.’ In other words, you can create life as long as you’ll destroy it and not raise it as your child. That is an assault on human dignity. How many Americans realize the import of what Obama said today?”
She is right. Scientists may form cellular clones on which to experiment, but citizens may not use the same technology to create a human life.
The more likely form of cloning using stem cells is already happening. Stem cells are used to grow tissue that form organs. Adult stem cells form these treatments, not embryonic stem cells.
These developments are why many believe that stem cell research may well be the future of health care. Already, adult stem cells of the patient (thus preventing the problem of organ rejection) help cancer patients, burn victims, diabetes sufferers (using stem cells from own blood), and those with Multiple Sclerosis. In the latter case, bone marrow cells reduced symptoms and may potentially reverse the disease if caught early enough.
The questions regarding embryonic stem cell research highlight a bigger question: the role of the government. The bottom line is that money spent on this research will be diverted away from other research. Right now, embryonic stem cell research is trendy and edgy. It’s almost taboo — and everyone knows that kind of thing is a whole lot more fun than engaging in research to understand the mechanism for a bird flu pandemic or how the common cold virus survives and mutates. And yet, for our national security and defense, it could be argued that the latter research is far more important.
But again, federally funded research is only partially about forwarding science. It’s also about politics and ideology. Clearly, embryonic stem cell research is no exception.