To Obama Science Trumps Ethics (Update: Former State Senator’s Perspective)

In President Barack Obama’s remarks before he signed the Stem Cell Executive Order and the Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum  he said the following:

This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: 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.

He goes on to leave the ethical decisions with the National Institute of Health – signing the order, but giving no guidelines or details.  Yuval Levin pointed out in an op-ed in the Wasington Post there is a problem with this line of thinking.  He nails it.

In a prior iteration of that debate, while he was serving in the Senate, Obama told reporters that “the promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.” This is a concise articulation of the technocratic temptation in science policy, reaffirmed by the president’s remarks yesterday. It argues not for an ethical judgment regarding the moral worth of human embryos but, rather, that no ethical judgment is called for: that it is all a matter of science.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding. Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.

Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities — be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.

William Saletan of Slate, says to look at what we are dismissing as “politics” and “ideology.”  We need those dilemmas.  If we don’t recognize the dilemma we face and wrestle with it, our ethical lines will slide.

You don’t have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don’t—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It’s the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

The thing is, however, is that politics and ideology are not being removed from this decision.  They are just being replaced.  A lack of an ideology is an ideology in an of itself.  Science must be guided by ethics. History has shown the results of when it is not.

Saletan concludes his column with the following:

The stem-cell fight wasn’t a fight between ideology and science. It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won. The question now is what to do with our 5-day-olds, our 5-week-olds, and our increasingly useful parts.

Update 3/11/08: Former Iowa State Senator Jeff Angelo shared on his blog a story about when this was being debated in the Iowa General Assembly.

When I was in the Iowa Legislature, the Assembly debated a similar cloning bill. I attended a meeting where a university professor–a recognized expert on stem cell research–presented the ethical challenges posed by such research in a non-partisan, fair way.

A state Senator asked him, “if I believe that life begins at conception, can I morally support embryonic stem cell research?”

The professor’s answer: “no.”

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