President Obama will sign an executive order today lifting the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The decision is not a surprise and despite the demonization of Obama coming from the right, it is a decision that John McCain promised to make as well. Furthermore, I believe that never in my lifetime will the Catholic Church convince non-Catholics that embryonic stem cell research is the affront to human dignity that we believe it to be. An interview with a single patient suffering from Parkinson’s Disease is enough to move most voters away from concern for the dignity of a cluster of cells.
That said, the justifications for the decision coming from the administration are so obnoxious or pathetic or both that this decision can properly be labeled Strike One against Obama.
"This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy," said Harold Varmus, the co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Varmus has won a Nobel Prize, and I haven’t, but you would think his bachelor’s degree in English would have been sufficient to teach him to be more careful about his choice of words. Dogma, to many of us, is not a bad word and I certainly resent its use in such a way. The dogmatic belief in the fatherhood of God, for example, is sure ground for the ethical belief in the common brotherhood of man. Is that the kind of dogma to which Mr. Varmus objects?
In an article for The Tablet, I catalogued the danger that nothing in the intellectual training of the President (or of those most likely to advise him) would dispose him to question the increasingly shrill demands of scientism. This adoration of science apart from "dogma" is stunningly unscientific, leaping past a host of questions properly called philosophic, to reach a place where no human endeavor should lurk, the place beyond questioning. As my friend Leon Wieseltier once wrote, "There is not a chart in the world that can explain the role of charts in the world."
The news article in the Washington Post notes that Obama does not intend to call for the repeal of the Dickey-Wicker amendment prohibiting research on embryos directly, as opposed to research on cells derived from the embryos. The Director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, Melody Barnes, noted that "Congress will have to make a determination about how they want to deal with that." This remark calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s writings about the banality of evil. Barnes, in consummate bureaucratic fashion, is content to punt the issue elsewhere. Newsflash to Ms. Barnes: Experimenting on embryos, which many American citizens believe are very young children, is horrific and you did not react with horror. Shame on you.
Those of us who have supported the President, who were non-plussed by the reversal of the Mexico City policy on the grounds that gag rules are difficult to defend in a liberal polity, and have been ambivalent about the nomination of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, must here draw a line. The President’s decision on stem cells, and the hubristic way it is being defended by his staff, is deeply disturbing. I do not expect to agree with anyone one hundred percent of the time, so I do not feel inclined to abandon my overall support for the administration. But, it is Strike One.