The President left a host of issues unresolved yesterday when he lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And, the fact that he did so illustrates the point we made yesterday, that the President has bought into "scientism," a belief that one can champion "pure" science, by-passing nettlesome philosophical and ethical questions and keeping ideological or dogmatic concerns at bay. This belief is false. Science can do many things but discern the difference between right and wrong is not one of them.
President Obama was re-assuring on the most worrisome outstanding issue: cloning. He said, "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." These words would have been powerful coming from any president, but they are even more so coming from a liberal president. If Bush had uttered them, scientism’s followers would have dismissed them as mere conservative dogma. Coming from Obama, hopefully they will see that there are, in fact, ethical complications in pursuing this type of research.
The key question left unanswered yesterday was whether research will be confined to stem cells derived from embryos left-over from fertility clinics or will federal funds be used for research on cells derived in other ways. The president’s comments on cloning would seem to preclude research on cells derived from cloned embryos: That would indeed encourage cloning. But, should embryos be created specifically for research? And, if so, can those embryos be genetically modified? Obama has given the National Institutes of Health 120 days to determine such issues, but I wonder why he turned to them? These are not scientific questions but ethical questions.
The President’s Council on Bioethics would have seemed a more natural place to start. The Chairman of that Council, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino is as distinguished a bioethicist as you can get, a former President of Catholic University and professor at Georgetown. One of my favorite thinkers in the whole country, Jean Bethke Elshtain, is also on the Council. The body was set up specifically to undertake answers to these difficult questions that require fluency in both philosophic and biological languages.
"We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse," said the President. But, of course, for many Americans, lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell research is already an act of misuse. These are contentless words, and the President must fill in that content. Punting the questions to a group of scientists is not the answer and he is inviting an even deeper level of battle in the culture wars if the NIH comes back with ridiculously broad rules.