The With-Us-Or-Against-Us Attitude to Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Peter Steinfels has a good article in the New York Times on the moral issues of the embryonic stem cell research debate, in light of Obama’s announcement to extend funding for embryonic stem cell research. He doesn’t make any moral arguments so much as ask that question that people like, well, Obama, seem too afraid to ask.

On Obama’s unwillingness to actually engage the moral issues:

He acknowledged that “thoughtful and decent people” opposed this research, and he claimed to “understand their concerns.” His own view was that “with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.”

What were those “concerns” that Mr. Obama understood or those “perils” that he would avoid? The president did not say. So one could object that his moral argument stopped in mid-air. How can one evaluate what he called “a difficult and delicate balance” when it is not clear exactly what is being balanced?

And, in the same speech, President Obama is talking about separating science from ideology. Maybe it’s just me, but calling “thoughtful and decent people” ideologues is not exactly a great demonstration that he “understands their concerns.”

On the science side, Steinfels doesn’t really mention the fact that adult stem cells have brought about many cures and treatments, but he does explain how the promise of embryonic stem cells has been greatly exaggerated:

Not long after the death of former President Ronald Reagan, his younger son, Ron, told delegates at the 2004 Democratic convention to imagine “your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital.”

“Sound like magic?” Mr. Reagan said. “Welcome to the future of medicine.”

Scientists who knew better kept quiet.

“People need a fairy tale,” Ronald D. G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explained to The Washington Post in 2004.

The part that gripped me most though was the surprisingly appropriate comparison to the war on terror:

“Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we’re in a life-and-death struggle — in this case, a scientific struggle — anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible,” Mr. Saletan wrote. “The war on disease is like the war on terror. Either you’re with science or you’re against it.”

It’s hard to ask the tough moral questions when former presidents believe that embryos are not fertilized and current presidents merely hand wave at having any sort of meaningful discussion about ethics. But ask them, we must.

What are the “perils” that Obama alludes to? The with-us-or-against-us war-on-terror style attitude is not going to provide answers.

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