Obama's Defense of Embryo-Killing

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President Obama announced today that he's lifting the ban on government funding for the destruction of living, complete human organisms in the embryonic stage. In his speech announcing this change, the President declared the choice between faith and science to be a false dichotomy, thus insinuating that the objections from the pro-life side (which are, in the popular mind, associated with faith rather than the philosophical backing that they tend to have among most pro-lifers) are anti-science. He speaks of pro-life objections as coming from thoughtful and decent people, which might suggest that he doesn't think such views are anti-intellectual, as many of my philosophical colleagues typically assume them to be. But in presenting his view as the middle road between the anti-science and pro-faith view on one side and the pro-science and anti-faith view on the other, it's hard to avoid the suggestion that pro-life objections are anti-science.

This becomes clearer later in his speech. He sees this order as part of a larger move to restore the promotion of good science. He sees it as a recovery from Bush Administration resistance to good science. Aside from the fact that those who make such claims have a pretty distorted view of what the Bush Administration actually did and what policies it actually supported in general, the claim is particularly ludicrous in this case. The pro-life objection to destroying human embryos has nothing to do with science or anti-science. It's based on a philosophical conclusion, that human life at any stage has the moral status that human life at any other stage has. The most science can show is that what empirical features are true of human life at any stage, not what moral status something with certain empirical features must have. That's a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it's one the current President claimed to be beyond his pay grade, so he can't consistently now claim that science does give the answer in as clear a way as this speech insists.

The argument for full moral status does not deny the empirically-observable facts about human development. Consciousness, complexity of thought, fully-formed organs, and other features sometimes thought to be necessary for full moral status are simply irrelevant, according to the standard pro-life picture, and nothing science observes will tell us otherwise. It takes a philosophical presupposition to resist that conclusion, a presupposition not shared by the pro-lifer. So labeling the pro-life view anti-science is grossly unfair and unbecoming for the President of the United States, particularly when he's just called such people thoughtful and decent. Ironically, Obama's own position is also based on an ideological assumption that there's nothing wrong with killing an embryonic human being, and yet he says in this speech that "scientific decisions" should be "based on facts, not ideology". I won't call this hypocrisy, since he may simply not know what he's doing, but his words and actions are certainly inconsistent.

There's a further insult to pro-lifers hidden in this speech. He says, "with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided". What perils does he mean? It sounds as if he's saying that the ethical objections can be handled by applying proper guidelines and oversight, but it's hard to see how that would be unless the proper guidelines and oversight would prevent the killing of any embryos for the purpose of deriving stem cells, and that's exactly the policy he's trying to remove with this executive order. So it's as if he wants people to get the impression that proper oversight and guidelines will avoid all the objections being raised against this research, when in reality the only way to have guidelines and oversight of that nature would have been to retain the Bush policy, which was already the ingenious middle way between the two extremes, one that recognized the value of the research while not allowing further human organisms to be destroyed. Now President Obama wants to claim that spot by abandoning Bush's middle-ground view and going for the more extreme view that refuses to recognize any of the moral objections of a sizable minority of the American populace (something like 41% according to one poll).

I do give him credit for one thing, though. He at least mentions the much more promising research of the last few years that supporters of killing embryonic human beings have usually spent almost no time acknowledging in their rush to destroy embryos. Adult stem cell research has proven far more successful than supporters of embryonic stem cell research would ever have dreamed in their years of saying there was hardly any potential with them, and embryonic stem cell research has hit a big wall with the indications that they would cause harmful tumors when introduced into a foreign body. Whenever the mainstream media reports stem cell success, they usually fail to mention that it's from adult cells. President Obama does not mention any of those scientific discoveries.

But, even more recently, there have been efforts to produce cells something like stem cells from ordinary adult cells (i.e. not adult stem cells but any adult cells, e.g. skin cells). The President at least mentions that research as worth pursuing, even if he ignores the important science on the problems with embryonic cells and the success of the research with adult stem cells that no one deems morally problematic. So his view is at least less scientifically-uninformed that the typical position from his party on this issue (and than previous speeches by him, I might add). While that's a far cry from being scientifically-informed, it is at least a step in the right direction. I do applaud that, even if it's only partway to a balanced understanding even of the science on these issues, never mind of the philosophical debate that he's repeatedly shown a superficial understanding of.

Ironically, the one practice he finds it worth speaking out against with moral certainty is human cloning. I say this is ironic because my close examination of the philosophical literature on that issue turned up no remotely decent philosophical arguments against cloning humans. There are reasons for hesitation in certain contexts and objections to doing so in certain ways, particularly with certain motives. But there is no in-principle argument against human cloning that I have found remotely convincing. So again I have to conclude that our current President has his moral priorities in entirely the wrong place if he's going to reserve harsh words for a popularly-opposed but in-principle perfectly ok practice, particularly in comparison to the more serious moral objections with embryo-killing, while supporting something that's popular to support but has much more serious moral reservations.

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Obama didn't even raise an objection to cloning as such, only cloning for human reproduction. This suggests that he may not be opposed to cloning for other purposes (e.g., to make embryos that will have stem cells that won't cause tumors in patients). In other words, the only type of cloning Obama seems to be against is the type of cloning where the embryo isn't killed.

I remember reading a report from the advisory council on stem cells during the Bush administration, and I was surprised to note that there was wide agreement against reproductive cloning, but disagreement over therapeutic cloning (cloning for destruction). It is an oddity, as I'd think that therapeutic cloning has the clearer moral implications. You can argue that you can't think of any morally correct reason to create a living clone, or that the process is too unreliable to risk on someone expected to live, but neither of those are arguments against the principle. The only consistent argument I can think of to support therapeutic cloning and oppose reproductive cloning is that there is something inherently wrong in the creation of an engineered human being (probably not the right term, but by "engineered" I mean cloned, genetically engineered, or in some other sense created through human tampering rather than natural conception). If you believe that, then you can argue that a therapeutic clone must be destroyed, as the birth of a human being created in an unnatural way would be a worse crime than destroying that human being in an embryonic state. It's easier when you believe, as a matter of ideological principle, that the embryo isn't a real person until it's born. Now, most people exempt IVF from this without thinking, but there's no reason to, and it is logically consistent with the destruction of "left-over" embryos. So created and destroyed before birth--fine. Allowed to live--an ethical nightmare. That does leave you in a very uncomfortable position if that person is born. Is the "taint" of being engineered something that ceases once they're born? If you include IVF in the unnatural processes, that applies to real people living today.

Yes, that's pretty much along the lines of my own thinking.

"He sees it as a recovery from Bush Administration resistance to good science. Aside from the fact that those who make such claims have a pretty distorted view of what the Bush Administration actually did and what policies it actually supported in general, the claim is particularly ludicrous in this case."

The Bush Administration's 'war on science' is pretty well documented IMO & I have not seen any serious defense of it. Usually defense are presented in the 'off the cuff' manner depicted above that gives the reader the impression the writer has made a careful survey of the charges and defenses of the administration and concluded there is little substance to them. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know where I can find a more detailed defense of the Bush admin. on science.


Several things I think that should be kept in mind:

1. No embryo's are being destroyed for research. It is more correct to say that research is being done on embryo's that are *being* destroyed. The IVF industry creates thousands of embryos each year and they are either aborted in utero or left to slowly degenerate in freezers until they are no longer viable. Some pro-lifers are consistent here but not Bush who attacked stem cell research while praising the IVF industry. Be clear, absolutely zero embryos were saved by Bush's policy (and I find it ironic that many of the most heated debates over pro-life issues involve no actual saving of life)...

2. Bush's position left a lot to be desired. It was ok to use some lines but no new ones the magic date being when Bush made his speech. I believe there isn't even agreement on which lines Bush was talking about. I think most would agree that Bush's policy was at best a place holder until something a bit more consistent and clear could be formulated.


3. Don't guess the science. Advocates for and against research are in a way irrelevant. Actual researchers will write up grant requests and there's no way to really know what they will or won't discover. This is almost by definition. If you could predict the results of research then there's no point in doing the research. Why waste the time and money?! Yet there's no end to bloggers and commentators who will snatch a single headline or read some high level summary written for the general public and declare that such and such research has 'failed' or won't produce results or can replace another type of research.

4. Keep competition in mind. As with #3, research is often done by requesting a grant. Since money is limited proposals are weighed against each other with only some of them winning approval. If adult stem cells have more promise than embryo ones, then those grants will edge out embryo ones regardless of rule changes. I wouldn't trust bloggers or commentators to really judge the science here, though, unless they are specializing in science.

5. Competition again. A by-product of the ban was several state and private funds set up for embryo research. If you have an open ended fund that handles all science, then the competition is between everyone (adult stem cells, embryo ones, and everything else). If you have a fund dedicated to embryo research, then the competition is closed only to embryo based experiments. Under the Bush regime, you had a perverse situation where if adult stem cells did have better results, the embryo requests would have an advantage since they could tap funds dedicated to them rather than compete agaisnt the whole range of scientific proposals. By attempting to correct the imbalance of the Bush policy, another one might be set up.

I'm a lot more worried about the general expression "war on science" than I am about most of the details, largely because it carries the implicature that this is some kind of witch hunt that would round up every scientist and lock them up for participating in such a despicable practice. We reserve the expression form "war on ______" for things like cancer, terrorism, poverty, and so on, things the person in question wants to eradicate or significantly reduce. There's no evidence whatsoever for, and lots of evidence against, the proposition that Bush loathes science in such a way.

So even if it's true, as many claim, that the Bush Administration frequently suppressed the results of science for ideological reasons and adopted policies that involved premises that are demonstrably false given good science, it's completely outrageous to call it a war on science. It's at least as outrageous as the conservative claim that there's a war on Christmas (and I'd say more outrageous, because there at least is an active effort to get Christmas out of the public sphere, whereas there's no active effort to get science out of the public sphere

Jonathan Adler had a series of posts on this at the Volokh Conspiracy:

The GOP "War on Science"
"The GOP War on Science" -- Mooney Responds
Adler vs. Mooney: One Last Time

His main claim is that many of the charges against Bush in this meme are unfair exaggerations or even simply inaccurate. (See his devastating response to RFK Jr. on the environmental side of things for outright inaccuracies). Aside from that, he does think there are ways the Bush Administration ignored science for political reasons or dismissed scientific results because of policy preferences, but he argues that there's no reason to see that as anything different from what Clinton did and most presidents for a long time. This isn't a party thing, and it's certainly not a Bush thing. It's an American political thing.

Adler also dissected environmentalist claims, mainly initially from RFK, Jr., that had pretty much been lies but are constantly repeated as evidence that Bush doesn't care about science.

The specific issues I have most concern for that Adler doesn't touch on are this issue and intelligent design. Bush is regularly portrayed as advocating the teaching of creation science instead of or alongside evolution, when all he's advocated is the presentation of intelligent design arguments along with the responses to them from the other side, and he's even acknowledged his own acceptance of contemporary evolutionary theory alongside his openness to ID arguments being good philosophical support for a creator. Those who assume at the outset that ID arguments entail the denial of common-descent evolution cannot make room for Bush's position, but that's their ideology getting in the way. It takes ideological assumptions, false ones in fact, to take Bush's views on ID as anti-science.

Bush oversaw increased funding for the NIH and NSF and implemented a new vision for NASA (even if it hasn't funded it as well up to this point, although that's somewhat mitigated by the fact that lots of funds will suddenly open up when the space shuttle program ends, something Bush was taking into account when he didn't fund it as much during his years). He was much more interested than Obama in finding a scientific solution to nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations, and test after test has shown promise in that arena, despite the claims of critics that one early test of a flawed model demonstrated in some final way that missile defense is a hopeless waste of money.

It's a lot harder for me to assess the global warming issue, since I haven't followed the details of the Bush Administration's actions there, but my sense has not been that they want to challenge the consensus on it but have had some hesitation about proposing wide-sweeping changes in policy on an issue where the most prominent voices (e.g. Al Gore, RFK Jr.) have demonstrably exaggerated their predictions beyond what more careful science demonstrates and have proposed solutions that will take more resources to solve than we actually have at the moment, thus causing more short-term problems than we could afford to solve a long-term solution that it's not clear we could really avoid easily even with sweeping change that would reduce the quality of life of the majority of people in significant ways. Whether that view is correct is a matter of debate, but I can't see how it's anti-science in any straightforward way.

On your specific points:

1. I don't think things are as clear as you put it. I wasn't aware that all embryos being used and proposed for being used for stem cell research are already going to be destroyed. I find that especially surprising given that this was a big debate several years ago, with Bill Frist taking what I thought to be an interesting mediating position between the standard Democratic line and the standard Republican view. Frist advocating using only embryos that were going to be destroyed, and then the result isn't any different. I thought at the time that the only moral objection remaining would then be that you're doing the killing rather than allowing to die, a distinction that's morally important but perhaps can even be superseded by some more important principle in some cases, and I wasn't sure if this would turn out to be one of them. But I thought it an interesting mediating approach. Everyone I read on the subject acknowledged it to be that, even if they criticized it. Was that presentation of things entirely wrong?

I'm not sure the Bush position is inconsistent on this, though, as much as I would also defend the Frist position as consistent (despite pro-life claims to the contrary). The Bush position seems to be that it's wrong to destroy the embryos but that there's nothing the government should do at this point to prevent private citizens from destroying their own embryos. I'm not seeing a contradiction there. As long as he can motivate the distinction between doing and allowing sufficiently in these cases, his view is consistent. Frist's is also consistent if he can argue that the distinction between doing and allowing is less important in these cases for some other reasons. Neither is automatically contradictory.

I don't think the pro-life goal is simply to save lives at any stage. One aspect of the pro-life goal is to prevent wrongdoing with respect to life, and only a consequentialist will assume that wrongdoing with respect to life always leads to lives being saved. If it's better to allow several people to die than to kill one person, as non-consequentialists are at least open to, then doing the pro-life thing and not killing might in fact lead to lives not being saved and more people dying than would otherwise be the case.

2. I thought the reason for Bush's approach was that research already in progress won't require killing for embryos to use a future death as a means to an end, but already-killed embryos are just that, already dead. Using stem cells already derived from them is no worse than using research arrived at immorally but that happened to have been published in a journal so that it's now public knowledge. Bush's view, then, is at odds with the strange view that left scientists discarded all the results of Nazi research on the grounds that it was immoral to conduct the research, as if that somehow makes the conclusions of the research immoral, which is a category mistake. So I have no problem that his view rejects that sort of strange notion, as popular as such a view is.

3. When politicians decide how to spend the money that they don't have to spend, they ought to include a lot less than they actually include, simply because we shouldn't be spending so much money that we don't have. So it's important to sift through proposals and figure out which ones will be most profitable for federal funding to be spent on. That involves making educated guesses about the practical applications of certain research and the likelihood of achieving those results. There's a reason we don't fund time travel research (at least I hope we don't; you never know what the stimulus package might include). Even if time travel, done carefully, could produce very exciting applications, the chances of anyone actually pulling it off are pretty slim.

If one kind of stem cell has been shown to have some promise, and another has been shown to have a lot more to overcome in achieving the same results (by the very accounts of those doing the research, not just armchair pundits reading headlines), then that gives prima facie priority to the method that has already shown promise. This is especially so if there's a sizable portion of the populace with objections to that research. Scientists can still do science to figure out if such educated guesses are correct, but federal funding decisions aren't just based on whether a scientific question might be answered other than how the headlines answer it. Whether it's legitimate science is a separate question from whether it should receive federal funding, and your argument seems more directed to the former than the latter.

4. I don't think competition is likely to cut off embryonic stem cell research at this point, simply because it's been such a heated political issue, one the Obama team is so wedded to, that administration officials looking at applications for grants are surely going to approve a lot of this research, and that's not remotely going to establish that the research ought to be done. If Obama had run on more funding to research to scientific means of preventing global warming (as opposed to the regulatory methods he favors), and he then oversaw an NIH and NSF that didn't pursue funding for technological attempts to control climate change, he'd be in big political trouble.

6. This is a consequentialist argument again. It's not going to be very moving to someone who thinks it's wrong to kill embryos unless the consequences are so drastic that it's worth doing something that would otherwise be wrong in order to avoid that consequence. I'm not sure I would say such a thing.

Here's a more recent post by Adler (no denier of global warming) pointing out an instance of the Obama Administration already making junk science claims on global warming, by which he means making statements that go way beyond what any of the scientists who have conducted scientific study of climate change have ever concluded with their scientific work. If this is a trend, I won't hold my breath for the media and lefty bloggers to start accusing Obama of waging a war on science, though.

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