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The 'rightful place' of science cannot be separated from moral and political decisions Print
Guest column
Thursday, Apr. 02, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

President Barack Obama's executive order casting aside the ban on federal funding for developing and using new embryonic stem cell lines was nakedly inconsistent and, despite his protestations, thoroughly political.

Guest Column

Obama said: "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."

Surely Mr. Obama is right on the first point.

The financial interests behind this research are enormous. No doubt, too, that there are legions of people who have the will to pursue this research in the hope of a cure for themselves or a loved one.

The moral issue of not encouraging the creation and destruction of human life for the purpose of science is absent in the media and public discussion. "Capacity and will" have trumped "humanity and conscience."

President is inconsistent

The height of inconsistency is captured in the president's statement: "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."

But this issue is soaked through with ideology. Is it not an ideological judgment that scientists should be given a free hand to create new stem cells from embryos, but not to fertilize new embryos expressly for this purpose? It is surely an ideology that human cloning is wrong even though science can do it.

In a related application of science, ideology is intensely used to argue against genetic modification of food crops. Is banning genetically modified corn less of an ideological intrusion on science than genetically modifying human tissue?

Amoral public policy at work

Amoral public policy on reproduction has produced tragic consequences. Consider China's one baby policy and the sex selection and demographic imbalance that ensued. Consider the growing fashion for producing "boutique babies" with select characteristics and selecting against (aborting) babies with birth defects.

As one Colorado regenerative scientist put it, the Obama decision is, "restoring science to its rightful place"[1]. Following suit, the media is gushing with praise like that found in "Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics" (Washington Post, March 9, 2009).

Let's be honest. The president's decision to lift the ban on federal tax dollars being used for expanded embryonic stem cell research is no more apolitical than his predecessor's decision to impose a ban.

It certainly is a political judgment to use tax dollars to support what some tax payers feel deeply is a morally reprehensible purpose, just as it was politics to not use tax dollars for such a purpose.

Whatever one's position on the issue, it would be more forthright to admit that the coercive power of government is forcing an outcome that will please some but offend others.

We need restraints on science

Finally, does any thinking person, including scientists indulging in statements like the one above, seriously welcome a world in which scientists can engage in whatever research agenda they wish without legal or public policy constraints?

If cloning could "reproduce" a child about to die in infancy, should that be allowed? Should new types of humans be engineered with other species' genes?

Only a little thought can produce dozens of ghastly scenarios of a world gone mad by unchecked applications of scientific knowledge and will. The "rightful place" of science cannot be separated from moral and political decisions.

1. Dr. Roop, director of Colorado University's Charles C. Gates Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology Program

Gregory Krohm resides in Madison.