Bioethics: March 2009 Archives

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).



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