Monday, 9 March 2009

President Obama and funding for embryonic stem cell research

A guest from America's scientific community spoke on BBC Radio 4's PM programme this afternoon, welcoming President Obama's decision to rescind the ban on public funding of embryonic stem cell research.

It is interesting to read the presentation of this decision here on the White House website. I reproduce it below, as I am not expecting the link to be permanent.

“A debt of gratitude to so many tireless advocates”
Moments ago President Obama marked a monumental moment for hope with an audience of Nobel Laureates, leaders of the faith community, and patient advocates.

Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.

The President acknowledged that there are those who strongly oppose this research, and insisted that even as he had come to a different conclusion those opinions deserved full respect. He explained that the American government has not only a role but a responsibility to keep the country at the forefront of medical science. But he also made clear that his decision was not made based on his belief in science alone: "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease
human suffering."

The President said that a false choice has often been presented between science and faith, and that corrupting, shielding, or shying away from the facts science lays bare benefits nobody:

That is why today, I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.

One of the President’s closing notes was to pay homage to those who dedicated so much of their time and energy, often in their last days when both were short, to the cause of allowing this research to see its full potential:

As we restore our commitment to science, and resume funding for promising stem cell research, we owe a debt of gratitude to so many tireless advocates, some of whom are with us today, many of whom are not. Today, we honor all those whose names we don’t know, who organized, and raised awareness, and kept on fighting – even when it was too late for them, or for the people they love. And we honor those we know, who used their influence to help others and bring attention to this cause –
people like Christopher and Dana Reeve, who we wish could be here to see this moment.

The text raises some interesting questions:

1. The claim is that politics has been removed from decision making about science. But, if we read the last paragraph of the release above, there is a clear acknowledgement of the political campaigning that has led up to this decision by President Obama. The decision itself is profoundly political. And, let's be clear, the promise to appoint scientific advisers on the basis of their scientific credentials and not their ideology is probably one sided .... anyone who is pro-life will be considered ideological/political and not be appointed, while those not on the side of the angels (as I would view it!) will be non-ideological and non-political and so be appointed.

2. It is also interesting to notice the interest in the aim that America might lead the world in the discoveries to which this research might lead. At the press conference, President Obama also referred to the potential for scientists to leave America to work in countries where the research was allowed. An interesting motivation, which does not seem to leave much room for properly ethical considerations.

3. In so far as any moral consideration comes into this decision, President Obama cites the possibility that the research might help in developing cures for certain illnesses, and that we have a duty to care. The line of argument is purely consequentialist, and leaves out any consideration of a moral value or disvalue intrinsic to the pursuit of the research itself.

4. But of greater significance is an unstated underlying principle. Decisions about science are to be made based on science. With little or no reference to objective moral considerations. The presentation above seems to portray a separation of scientific endeavour from moral endeavour. On BBC Radio 4's PM programme (the evening current affairs programme that partners the morning Today programme), for example, an American scientist welcomed President Obama's decision, saying that the decision had been made on the basis of science and not of ideology. There is a certain obfuscation in President Obama's talk that "a false choice has often been presented between science and faith"; radio coverage is quoting him as opposing a "false choice between sound science and moral values". This all seems to speak of an abandoning of a sense of the moral responsibility of the scientific enterprise, and of the idea that religious belief can contribute to the moral nature of this enterprise.

I must re-read C P Snow's article on "The Moral Un-neutrality of Science" ...


Anonymous said...

Well, yes. However, the background to this is much nore loaded.

We have a leader of the Free World who has now chosen to spear-head THE most relaxed attitudes to the abortion industry to date.

I find it hard to take seriously anything he may have to say on the ethics of embryo research.

He would have won me over more readily, had he STARTED with that and not with the Freedom Of Choice Act.

As it is, he has declared his hand. The man is a Nihilist, and, as a Catholic myself, I would have to state, based purely on logic and factual evidence, that Barack Obama is the antithesis of anyone purporting to try and uphold a Catholic life style.

The man is a danger to Christians.

Egy Azziera said...

There is no ban on embryonic stem cell research for President Obama to lift. When Bush provided federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which no President had done before him, he restricted what research that funding could be used for. He did not ban embryonic stem cell research.