Culture At Large

Human embryonic stem cells: 'sound science' and 'moral values'

Steve Matheson

A few months ago, when President Obama lifted the ban on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells (HESCs), he seemed to portray his action as an affirmation of "sound science" as contrasted with "moral values" and "ideology." From his speech that day:
In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.
Later in the speech, he had this to say about ideology and decision-making:
Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's also about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about letting scientists like those who are 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.
Now, I think some Christians have misunderstood the second paragraph: it seems to me to be clearly about avoiding the abuses of science that too often occurred in the past, and Obama went on to announce a memorandum directing technology advisers to avoid basing science- and technology-related decisions on politics and ideology. But the first quote is interesting. The president is characterizing the Bush policy as a "false choice between sound science and moral values." And it seems to me that this is a really dumb thing to say. A person who believes that the destruction of a human embryo is a profound evil is not a person who is forcing any kind of "false choice." Such people may be completely wrong about the moral value of a blastocyst, but they're not advancing a flawed or even peculiar moral argument. And not even President Obama would disagree. Consider his over-the-top rhetoric here:
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. is that not a false choice between sound science and moral values?

There are enough issues surrounding stem cell biology and ethics that we could fill a nice monthly blog series with the discussions. And we will. But let's not make the mistake our otherwise intelligent and capable president seems to have made. If we really believe that embryos and blastocysts have vast moral significance, then our choices aren't "false," and the careless dismissal of the hard questions is not a good way forward.

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