Saturday, March 7, 2009

Obama Set to Reverse Bush’s Stem-Cell Restrictions

The New York Times
Published: March 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Obama will announce Monday that he is reversing Bush administration limits on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research as part of a pledge to separate science and politics, White House officials said Friday.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama spoke out in favor of stem cell research, so his intention to undo the curbs put in place by President George W. Bush is not surprising. But the decision is nonetheless of great interest, involving a long-controversial intersection of science and personal moral beliefs.

The officials said that advocates of unfettered stem cell research, as well as about 30 Democratic and Republican lawmakers who support it, had been invited to a White House ceremony scheduled for 11:45 a.m. Eastern time, when Mr. Obama is expected to make an announcement.

One person familiar with planning for the event said the president would also speak about a general return to “sound science” in his administration, as a fulfillment of his campaign promise to draw a demarcation line between politics and science. The Bush administration was often accused of trying to shade, or even suppress, the findings of government scientists on climate change, sex education, contraceptives and other issues, as well as stem cells.

Mr. Obama’s announcement is not likely to lead to any immediate change in government policy, since it may take many months for the National Institutes of Health to develop new guidelines for research.

Still, research advocates are expected to push for the process to go as quickly as possible to ensure that universities have time to submit grant proposals that can be reviewed and accepted before September 2010, when the health institutes must commit the last of the $10.4 billion given to the N.I.H. as part of the economic stimulus program.

Because embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any type of cell in the body, many scientists believe that they may one day be able to provide tissues to replace worn-out organs or non-functioning cells and, thus, offer powerful new treatments for diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. Some researchers say the stem cells may even be used someday to treat catastrophic injuries like damage to the spinal cord.

But many people have a moral problem with embryonic stem cell research because creation of the cells entails destruction of human embryos. For that reason, Mr. Bush ordered in August 2001 that federal research be limited to lines of cells that were already in existence, since the embryo destruction for those had already taken place.

The main suspense about what Mr. Obama would do centered on whether he would seek to undo the Bush-era restrictions through legislation or by executive order. The event set for Monday indicates that he might have decided on the latter course, although one person expected to attend the announcement said he understood that the president might also seek to involve Congress.

Advocates of stem cell research have been hoping for an order lifting all restrictions and allowing scientists and ethicists at the N.I.H., not the White House, to make decisions related to stem cell research.

One prominent advocate of stem cell research is Larry Soler, executive vice president for government relations and operations at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Mr. Soler said in a telephone interview Friday that he was sure that Mr. Obama would indeed signal a return to an era of “scientists making scientific decisions.”

Discussions about stem cell research have often been deeply personal as well as scientific. Advocates of unrestricted research note that the cells are typically obtained from embryos that have been abandoned by couples seeking in-vitro fertilization and that the embryos would be discarded anyway.

But many of those opposed to the research say the embryos are nothing less than tiny human beings, with souls, and that destroying them is akin to murder. They argue that research on embryos that would be thrown out is a slippery moral slope to be avoided by a decent society.

Critics of embryonic stem cell research also argue that scientists can use different types of stem cells, like those found in amniotic fluid or the placenta. But supporters of using embryonic cells say those are by far the most promising.

No matter what is announced Monday, the debate over embryonic stem cell research will not subside. That was clear from the reaction unleashed Friday.

“It must be Friday night because word leaks of yet another deadly executive order by President Obama,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, calling Mr. Obama’s intention “a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of all human life.”

But the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation praised the president’s plan.

“By removing politics from science,” said Peter T. Wilderotter, the organization’s president and chief executive, “President Obama has freed researchers to explore these remarkable stem cells, learn from them and possibly develop effective therapies using them.”

The actor Christopher Reeve died in 2004, nine years after being injured in a horseback riding accident. His wife died in 2006. “The Reeves’ belief in the promise of stem cell research is a part of their lasting legacy,” Mr. Wilderotter said.

Among the lawmakers reportedly invited to the White House on Monday are Senators Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Representative Michael N. Castle of Delaware, all Republicans; Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, all Democrats.


Two glaring problems inherent in the human embryonic stem cell debate are made evident in the above article. First, is the question of what moral philosophy should be operative/normative in considering the ethical question involved (Utilitarianism vs: Traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic moral philosophy) and second whether it is morally licit to destroy (kill) human embryos for any purpose.

Currently, the procuring of human embryonic stem cells (ESC's) requires the destruction of human embryos. Human embryos are in fact biologically/ontologically entirely human from the moment of conception/fertilization at which time DNA from paternal and maternal gametes are combined and reshuffled. Once in existence, these entities are in every relevant sense--nascent human beings--irrespective of how they came into being or where they are located. They are completely innocent from a moral perspective.

In traditional moral philosophy it is always and everywhere wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being (as is done routinely in "harvesting" embryonic stem cells from human embryos). All such embryonic human beings are killed in the process of removing the highly sought-after embryonic stem cells. Therefore, as presently performed--yet from a traditional (golden-rule ethic) moral philosophical perspective, embryonic stem cell research is immoral as is all human destructive embryo research (DER). As such, only if the stem cells could be removed without harm to the embryo and if doing so directly benefited the embryo itself would such manipulations be morally licit.

Since in the United States and Western culture in general, rank Utilitarianism is the reigning (unethical) moral construct, embryonic stem cell research has been embraced by most scientists involved and many interested advocates. President Obama has embraced Utilitarianism as his operative (immoral/amoral) philosophy and thus is prepared to federally fund embryonic stem cell research. It is unclear whether this will involve utilizing (killing embryos in order to obtain their embryonic stem cells) only those embryos already in existence (e.g. those currently cryopreserved in fertility clinics) or whether he also envisions federally funding the wholesale creation of embryos from which embryonic stem cells will be liberally "harvested." This practice is currently legal albeit completely privately financed. The change which President Obama may be advocating is to make federal funds available for this purpose as well. We must wait to see what the details of his policy will be. Only time will tell.

Just as it is immoral (from a traditional moral perspective) to kill human embryos in order to obtain their embryonic stem cells, it is also immoral to artificially create human embryos for that purpose (in fact it is immoral to create them for any purpose such as in IVF although that involves a different moral calculus). Not only should there be a ban on human destructive embryo research (DER) from the perspective of federal funding but it should be made illegal entirely meaning that private entities would also be prohibited from doing so. As a society we must either always and everywhere protect innocent human life or admit that in the United States, some human beings--the most innocent among us--lack the right to life and can be sacrificed for the sake of expediency--a rank utilitarian calculus that. To do otherwise is to be intellectually inconsistent and morally bankrupt.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, Utilitarianism is a completely inadequate (and often immoral) construct by which to analyze complex ethical problems. It is frequently productive of an ad-hoc/self-serving result which is incompatible with the common good. It is not surprising that those who embrace a Utilitarian ethic would support destructive embryo research (DER).

Many who support DER (such as the referenced individuals quoted in the above article including spokespersons for the White House) engage in sophistry by which they attempt to eliminate all ethical considerations from scientific research by incorrectly conflating the "political" with the ethical. While it is admirable in some circumstances to remove political considerations from scientific investigation, it is never morally licit to eliminate ethical considerations from scientific research. History is replete (e.g. Nuremberg tribunals on human experimentation and US military experiments on syphilitic black males) with examples of what occurs when that is allowed to happen.

--Dr. J. P. Hubert