Stem Cell Rhetoric

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From Hillary Clinton's statement on the Bush veto of the stem cell funding bill
You know, later today, apparently, the president will veto a bill passed by Congress to support stem cell research.
Now, this is research that...holds such promise for devastating diseases. Yesterday, I met with a group of children suffering from juvenile diabetes. I co-chair the Alzheimer's caucus in the Senate. I've worked on helping to boost funding for research to look for cures and a way to prevent so many devastating diseases. And we know that stem cell research holds the key to our understanding more about what we can do. So let me be very clear: When I am president, I will lift the ban on stem cell research.
This is just one example of how the President puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families, just one more example of how out of touch with reality he and his party have become. And it's just one more example as to why we're going to send them packing in January 2009, and return progressive leadership to the White House. 

No mention of the president's actual reasons for vetoing the bill. No mention that a large percentage of U.S. voters have strong moral objections to their tax dollars funding the deaths of human embryos. The way she tells the story, there are the people who want to help look for cures for diseases, and there are those who are just mean and prefer that sick people to get better.

Further, she gives a very clear implicature that there is a ban on stem cell research by talking about lifting it. But there is no such ban. Period. There is a ban on federal funding for such research, but no one has ever banned the research itself, at least in this country, and several states are now funding the research. So she misrepresents the position of the president and much of the opposing party, and then she says something about the current policy that's pretty much the moral equivalent of a lie.

Next, she makes it sound as if this is ideology and politics on one side and science and the needs of families on the other side. Yet there's no need to deny anything that scientific study has shown on the issue in order to argue against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There is information that each side of the debate downplays (e.g. the successes of adult stem cells, the potential for other methods of getting stem cells, and so on). Both sides want to tilt the evidence a little in their direction, but there's no way she can make the argument that her side is always on the side of science, while the other side is always against it. Neither case is based on science, in fact, since both views can admit the same scientific information. The real issue is about whether certain kinds of scientific research are immoral, and a lot of people do think this particular kind is thoroughly immoral, while others think there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

As for ideology, I don't think Senator Clinton is in a neutral enough position to judge. She is strongly committed to the absoluteness of "a woman's right to choose" (while usually avoiding using any words that indicate what that expression is a euphemism for), so strongly that pretty much nothing else can ever violate such a sacred right. No restriction on abortion has ever gotten her endorsement as far as I can tell. That makes it very hard for me to believe her repetition of the "safe, legal, and rare" mantra that her husband started. I can't think of any politician who uses that line who actually votes for any legislation that would restrict abortion even in minor ways. They couldn't, because it would be anathema to those who think the right to an abortion outweighs pretty much any other moral consideration. Saying it should be rare is required for getting moderates' votes. Actually doing it, however, would lose the Democratic base. So she gets the best of both worlds by saying it and doing nothing, hoping that no one will actually call her on it.

John Edwards has some of the same rhetoric in his statement on the president's veto, as does Barack Obama. The latter senator pulls an interesting trick. He says some true things but leaves out some equally important true things, which make all the difference. For instance, his last sentence (well, it's a run-on, so it's technically two sentences in the garb of one) points out that whatever hope stem cells have comes from science. True. Of course, the biggest obstacles to that hope also come from science, e.g. that they have no way of preventing immune systems from rejecting stem cells and that the treatments they envision will probably cause cancer.

The promise of hope does not come from an ideology. It does come from science, or at least it comes from optimistic attitudes about what science will produce. But that doesn't mean Senator Obama's view doesn't come from ideology, because the view that it's ok to go along with science in this case does come from ideology. Given that this research would involve killing human embryos, you can't get to its moral permissibility without a moral premise, i.e. that killing human embyros is morally ok when it might (but might not) produce huge increases in medical technology at some point perhaps not too soon in the future. The view behind the resistance to funding this research does come from ideology, i.e. a moral view. But then so does the view that considers the research morally permissible.

Both positions rely on moral premises. One is that there's nothing wrong with killing human embryos, human organisms with their own DNA (or at least that any wrongness to it is outweighed by the potential benefits). The other is that there is something wrong with such killing, even with the admittedly high hopes that this research presents (leaving aside whether the scientific results that mitigate such hopes should lower the expectations).

Both of these positions are moral views, i.e. philosophical positions, i.e. ideology. Neither side could have its policy position without taking a stand on that issue. You could have both sides agreeing with each other on the actual science, and there would still be a debate over what he's calling ideology. Pretending that his position is not ideologically-based is just that. It is a pretence, a facade, to make one side of the debate come out looking scientific and the other end up appearing anti-scientific. But it is a falsehood in the end, even if it isn't as outright or blatant as Senator Clinton's.

A fourth Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Bill Richardson, begins his statement with a similar falsehood. That makes the top four candidates for the Democratic nomination misrepresenting the other side in a way that is either seriously dishonest or seriously ignorant of the other side. Either way, it reflects badly on them.

14 Comments

Even as a supporter for government funding for stem cell research I think this kind of rhetoric is awful. "My opponent hates sick children" is not something a respectable politician should be saying, even if it is in a round-about way.
Oh, she fails to mention that it is only about embryonic stem cell research, not adult stem cells.

Hmmm...not feeling very charitable towards Dems today are we?

I agree that the Dems by and large are not being vary careful with their language. And I agree that it reflects badly on them. Particularly frustrating is the implication that stem cell research is banned.

However, though Hillary (in your example) certainly implied that there was a ban on SC research, her rhetoric is merely a response to Bush's equally strong rhetoric: "Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical," Now whether or not you agree with that statement (I do not, what about self-defense?; and presumably proponents of just war theory, and particularly of pre-emtive war theory, would disagree as well) Bush's statement certainly doesn't sound like he is permitting SC research. It sounds like the language you would use to ban SC research. It is only implication, and in this case weaker implication than Hillary's, but implication nonetheless. So while Hillary is wrong to make the implication, Bush is also wrong in starting off with rhetoric so strong that it implies a ban when none exists.

The way she tells the story, there are the people who want to help look for cures for diseases, and there are those who are just mean and prefer that sick people [not] get better.

Her language is no more problematic than Bush asserting that opponents to the immigration bill were seeking to harm this country. The cases are perfectly parallel. You should be extending the same charity (or lack of it) to both.

Moving on to Obama's statement (and skipping the others since it is late and I can't be bothered to read/write about them), I feel like you are being too uncharitable to him. He says "The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology, it is the judgment of science,"

Now while you are right that you can't make any sort of judgement without some sort of ideology grounding it, I really don't think that that is how he's using it. In context it seemed obvious to me that Obama meant political ideology. I.e. he was saying that the potential of stem cells is not based on partisan politics, but on scientific judgement. And that seems totally unobjectionable. (Your note about science being the obstacle to stem cells is neither here nor there. I see no reason why Obama should bring up the obstacles to a particular line of research when trying to get funds for that line of research.)

Now if you were to be very literal about it, then yes, Obama is wrong for every judgement is grounded in ideology. But it really seemed to me that Obama was saying that science (or more accurately, scientists) has judged that SC research is promising. And that is accurate (and made no less accurate by their judgement that adult SC research is also promising). And thus that promise is based on scientific judgement (or scientific ideology, if you will), not on political ideology.

Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical

Right. He can't mean this as an absolute, and he has to think the hopes in this case are less immediate and/or less significant given other options than in cases when he does think it's ok to do something that destroys human life to save human life. He hasn't worded this well at all. I think what he's trying to say is true, but what he's actually said is false.

I don't think he has implied that there is a ban. Perhaps he's implied that there ought to be one, but he's never said anything close to suggesting that he will pursue such a course. At most he's said things that should, if taken as absolutes and followed fully, would justify such a ban.

Her language is no more problematic than Bush asserting that opponents to the immigration bill were seeking to harm this country. The cases are perfectly parallel. You should be extending the same charity (or lack of it) to both.

Actually, I think there's a huge difference. His statement was in the context of a much larger speech, when he'd spent some time listing people's objections in a fairly charitable way, arguing that he agreed with the general principles behind them but that those objections ended up not undermining the bill in general but just smaller aspects of it that he thought the overriding purpose of the bill would outweigh, and thus those who were on board with his basic assumptions should vote for the bill even if they disagreed with some aspects of it in the details. He may not have been right, but what he was saying was in the context of having mentioned the objections about the bill providing amnesty, being weak on border security, being an easy path to citizenship, and so on. I don't know how anyone could seriously argue that his speech was uncharitable in large measure to the motivations of those conservatives who oppose what he's doing.

On the other hand, Senator Clinton's comment is not in such a context, it presents no awareness of the real motivations behind opposing funding for embryonic stem cell research, and sounds as if she thinks the opponents just don't have enough care about the kinds of diseases she expects this research will cure. So I do think there's a big difference.

As for Obama, I said that the potential of stem cells isn't really the issue. His pointing out that the potential is just a matter of science is irrelevant, since that's not what's being debated. What's being debated is a matter of a fundamental ethical disagreement, and partisan politics does enter into that. My point is that, while what he says isn't false, it's not to the point.

My point was about charity. It may be the case that there is justification for understading their statements the way you did. It may even be the most reasonable understanding. But my point is that you are not taking the most charitable understanding.

Hillary's statements may not have the context that Bush's statements did. But in your post defending Bush, (IIRC) you never cited the context as the reason why we should understand him the way you do; you only cited the principle of charity. Thus, if his statements should be understood charitably absent context, then so should Hillary's.

And in this post, you called Obama's statement "a falsehood in the end", even though in your comment, you admit that "what he says isn't false, it's [just] not to the point." If there is a way to understand Obama's statement that is merely irrelevant rather than outright false, then you should have chosen that interpretation to begin with instead of asserting that Obama was lying.

I only point this out because you are insistent about the principle of charity whenever people attack Bush. It seems only fair that the principle be applied consistently.

(Now it is my opinion that most of the politictians have shown through their track record that they don't deserve much if any additional charity when parsing their words--we've been burned by them enough times that we should be a bit cynical about what they say. So I'm willing to drop the principle of charity in many cases, if you are. But if you want to hold others to it, then I'll probably hold you to it too.)

Actually, I did talk about the context. I said, "Absent any context, principles of charity, or assumptions about what someone might mean, you can take the expression in either of the following two ways" before outlining the two ways to take it. I then discussed how the context of his speech as one intended to convince his fellow Republicans on their own premises is one reason to think that he didn't mean to say that their basic premises are at odds with his (which is required for saying that they don't care about what's best for America in the sense people were taking him).

My point about Obama is that what he says is literally true but that saying it in absence of other things sends a false implicature, which I think is morally equivalent to lying.

Now about charity, I think there's a difference between these two cases. In Bush's case, he was speaking to his own party trying to convince them on premises they accept. I know many people think he's an idiot, but he and his speech writers and advisers would all have to be complete idiots to allow him to go ahead with a speech that does what people were saying that speech does, whereas, my interpretation of the speech would make a lot of sense of the speech. You don't act like the people you're trying to convince are absolute idiots at the same time as you're insisting that their premises lead to your view.

The difference with portraying your opponents in the way that these candidates have done is that it's a play to the base, not an attempt to convince the opponent. Bush's veto speech is more like these statements and less like the quote everyone got mad about in the earlier speech (the one I was somewhat defending).

For the record, I actually looked through the Republican candidates' speeches on the same day to see if I could find anything to comment on, and of the candidates I could find something from I didn't see anything that was noticeably worth saying anything about. So I wasn't just targeting the Democratic candidates. It's just that those ones all struck me as doing something similar that I thought sent a message seriously misrepresentative of the position Bush holds.

No restriction on abortion has ever gotten her endorsement as far as I can tell. That makes it very hard for me to believe her repetition of the "safe, legal, and rare" mantra that her husband started.

I think you're misunderstanding the thinking behind the "mantra" here. (Interesting little piece of rhetoric that!) The idea behind "safe, legal, and rare" is that you make abortion rare by means other than by making it illegal. You don't show that you're insincere about SLR by rejecting legal restrictions on abortion! You are, after all, explicitly committed to seeking to make/keep abortion legal. There are many means by which an SLR-er can seek to make abortion rarer. One thing many of them support is in various ways promoting various forms of birth control, especially among teenagers. (Though straight facts here are not easy to come by, it's at least arguable that some of these metholds, including some methods that conservatives tend to resist, are more effective at making abortion rare than are the types of legal restrictions on abortion that have been recently made.) Is your claim really that Clinton has supported no measures or policies to make abortion rarer? Or is it just that she's supported no measures of a certain type (legal restrictions) that her other values (self-determination for women) conflict with?

Just to get a feel for how unfair the former claim would be, imagine some very conservative figure who supports just about every possible law against abortion that might be proposed, but who, based on his other values, opposes the distribution of condoms in public schools, even though others say that such programs would reduce the number of abortions. Now imagine some liberal figure who notes that Senator Conservative has never endorsed any condom distribution program, and so has "done nothing" to reduce abortions. Here you can no doubt sense the unfairness of the charge. Senator Conservative has supported various measures that he thinks will help constrain abortions; they are just not the measures that his liberal opponent favors. Just because Sen. Conservative doesn't support any of the measures his opponent favors doesn't mean that he's "done nothing." Other values of his result in his not supporting certain means to reducing abortions, but it's unfair just on that basis to question his sincerity in hoping for fewer abortions or to claim that he "does nothing" about it. You can make the application of this to your charges against Clinton yourself.

It's legal to drive 65 miles per hour in some places, no one allows that near schools. When Montana had no speed limit, they stopped and fined people who went over 80 miles per hour for driving unsafely. There was no limit to per se, and someone could always make a case that in the context they were driving safely or that the circumstances warranted going 100 because of an emergency, but they still stopped and fined people. In other words, they made driving that fast safe, legal, and rare.

That's what I think when I hear that expression. That means they will restrict it only to contexts that are safe (in this case ignoring the safety of the fetus, of course). It means they will seek to make it rare, including limits on where and when people can have the procedure performed. It's hard for me to see how a ban of a particular procedure for abortion, of abortions in the third trimester or last two months, mandatory ultrasounds and other things confronting women with the reality of their "choice", restrictions on parental consent for minors, crossing state lines, and so on would constitute making abortion illegal. They just restrict it. In other words, they serve to make it safer and more rare while keeping it generally legal, the same way speed limit laws in certain locations, at certain times of day, and so on make driving faster safe and rare while keeping it legal, just not all the time and everywhere. When I hear someone insisting that something should be safe, legal, and rare, I assume that they will work to restrict it, not that they will just hope that people will make better choices.

I'm curious how anything Hillary Clinton has done is supposed to have made abortion rare. I'll admit that she's favored some policies that might have decreased abortion a little bit while insisting on policies that make it much more common than it ought to be (which is virtually never). But decreasing it a little bit doesn't amount to making it rare. I have no idea how liberals on this issue are seeking to make it rare, because I've never seen anything in the area of an attempt to do that.

OK, maybe you can't make the application yourself. :)

heh.

OK. To spell it out for Jeremy, liberals who seek to make abortion safe, legal, and rare focus on two areas (All: if I've left any out, feel free to add on):

1) Contraception. Widespread, intelligently used contraception will prevent unwanted pregnancies. If unwanted pregnancies are rare, then presumably abortions will be rare too.

2) Reducing poverty. Most abortions are sought by those in the lowest SECs, presumably because they have the fewest resources and have the fewest options and are therefore the most desperate. Reducing poverty would reduce desperation which in turn would redue abortions.

So basically, "safe, legal, rare" translates into "freely available, but unnecessary" rather than "available with certain restrictions" which is how you seem to be reading/hearing it.

(Now you might argue that a focus on contraception and poverty don't directly apply to abortion and therefore don't count. I'd say that someone who defended Bush's statement that NCLB is a jobs program should have no trouble seeing how an anti-poverty program is an abortion-reduction program.)

1) How are we to achieve widespread, intelligently-used contraception? Educating people about contraception doesn't seem to do it, since mandatory sex ed's been around long enough now to have had an effect several times over. Do we make people use contraception somehow? I can't see how you can get the result that abortion is rare without enforcing contraception somehow at one end or restricting abortion somehow at the other end. I don't think anyone has advocated the former.

2) Reducing poverty might have some effect. But the reasons people have abortions are not always (and perhaps not even usually) poverty. Low-income people would probably be more likely to give that as a reason, but accordiong to this study, while 78% reported not being able to afford a baby as a contributing factor, only 8% of those were on welfare or public assistance, and only 23% reported an inability to provide for the basic needs of life. Reducing poverty would probably eliminate that reason for those people, but there are all the other reasons given, and I'm sure many of them listed the other reasons in the list as well. Many of the other categories of "can't afford to have a baby now" are much more convenience-related than financial. The argument also assumes that adoption isn't an option. Can't education about and encouragement of adoption get as much emphasis by the "safe, legal, and rare" crowd as contraception? But I don't see it. I don't see much encouragement of alternatives to abortion except by those who would prefer to make abortion illegal.

On the other hand, I could see how someone might think these other kinds of cases could be reduced significantly by making an argument that abortion is a bad thing, that most of the reasons on that list are not sufficient reasons to have an abortion, encouraging children who are pregnant to put a child up for adoption, encouraging parents seeking to adopt to consider children who are minorities or who have other characteristics many parents might not have sought in their children, and so on. Yet I never see anyone making those arguments except those who would be happy to have laws restricting abortion.

I'm not convinced that someone who uses the "safe, legal, and rare" line is serious about it unless I see them making the case that abortion is bad. Perhaps Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do deep down think it is a very bad thing. But to convince me that they do, they need to do more than just say that they want it to be rare, fight poverty, and make contraception available while educating people how to use it. They need to express what's bad about abortion and encourage people not to abort. They need to encourage abortion alternatives. Most pro-choice people not only won't do that, but they actively oppose crisis pregnancy centers that do the hard work of trying to do that kind of thing. So I'm not going to believe that they're serious without seeing something like that. It would be a start for Hillary Clinton just to make the case that abortion is bad from a moral perspective while arguing that it should be legal. I haven't seen anything remotely in that area.

Mandatory sex education isn't what is needed, good sex education is. All of my friends who have gone through the public high school sex education programs have nothing but contempt for it. I know this is just second-hand anecdotal evidence but out of the hundreds of teenagers I've come across none of them have ever had anything good to say about the quality of those programs.

I actually thought what I had in high school was pretty good, but it was at a private school, and it was taught by a guy with a Ph.D. in biology. It was the same information you'd get in a public school, I'm pretty sure.

It isn't just the information, it is how it is presented. If good information is presented by a bored, uncaring teacher the students aren't going to listen. If it is presented in a way that is easily open to derision it will also be ignored. One of my friends who went through the middle school and freshman level sex-ed segments of school said that "the information's often pretty good, it's just hard to watch and not crack up." She also said, "as far as explaining what sex actually *is*, they didn't. They just assumed you already knew." Another friend said that "it wasn't horrible or anything" but that that was the best she could say about it. A third friend on the other coast said she never actually took sex-ed in high school. Finally, when I asked my brother about the quality of his Sex Ed program he just gave me a couple of inappropriate adjectives and said it was "funny." These were all people who went to public schools.

I took the UU Sex Ed course OWLs and everyone I've talked to who did that said that they really enjoyed the class. Of the half-a-dozen or so people that I still talk to from that class, none of them have had any sort of sexual encounter that could result in pregnancy while I know several people their age who have.

From the anecdotal evidence I've got and my own personal experience I think that there are good ways to teach people about the use of contraceptives and there are bad ways. I don't think your argument is solid because I don't think the good ways have been implemented yet.

My argument was that mandatory sex ed isn't enough. Your point seems to be the same. You don't just need mandatory sex ed. You need to mandate that the information is presented in a certain way, with certain interest and excitement. That may well be a third option, but it's also not one anyone is recommending.

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