Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stem Cell Research


The Washington Post embarrasses itself with this editorial by Yuval Levin, attacking Obama for abandoning Bush's cowardly stance on stem cell research. Embarrassment starts with the headline, "Science Over All?". Was that picked by the author? Given the tendency of stem cell research opponents including and perhaps especially Levin to compare it with eugenics and Nazism, the allusion to "Deutschland Über Alles" is hard to overlook. If the title was picked by one of Fred Hiatt's employees, all the worse.

Does it need to be said? It gets worse from there. The second paragraph is mind-numbing drivel:
What you think of his policy depends on what you think of the moral status of embryos. If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems. But if you think an embryo is not quite a person, or that its immaturity or inability to suffer pain or its other qualities mean that destroying an embryo does not amount to taking a life, the promise of stem cell science might well outweigh any doubts.
Where to begin....
  • If in fact the debate turns on "the moral status of embryos", Levin should be embarrassed that he elided from his discussion Obama's discussion of the moral issues and description, albeit brief, of how he reached his conclusion; or Bush's vacuous half-measures on the same subject.

  • "If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life..." - as if no distinction can be made between "human life" and a "human being". Leaving aside my skepticism that Levin supports the extension of human life in all circumstances (e.g., that he opposes the death penalty), and even granting that he might have dogmatically defended the notion that Terry Schiavo should have been kept alive in a persistent vegetative state, even he must be able to recognize both qualitative and quantitative differences between a fertilized ovum and a human being.

  • "...and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections..." - What a way to build a syllogism. The Declaration of Independence says, "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". Their use of the term "men" did not even extend to slaves, and didn't apply equally to women or Indians, let alone to embryos.

  • "... government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems." - The conclusion is reasonable; it just isn't drawn from Levin's false premises. Also, as previously indicated, that's not a point of distinction from Bush's policies - if use of embryonic stem cells is a per se moral wrong, Bush's blessing it based upon a limited set of stem cell lines is also a per se moral wrong. If Levin finds Bush's policies defensible, he's already abandoned the moral framework that he's using to attack Obama.

  • "But if you think an embryo is not quite a person..." - An embryo isn't a person. Again, if it were a person Bush's stem cell policy would have been morally repugnant.

  • "... or that its immaturity or inability to suffer pain or its other qualities mean that destroying an embryo does not amount to taking a life..." - Have you ever heard that suggested by a proponent of stem cell research? Even once? It's a canard pulled out by the likes of Levin to impugn the morality of those with differing views on stem cell research, as a smokescreen over his conflation of "human life" with "personhood". I don't believe for a second that Levin believes this representation to be either fair or accurate in relation to anybody, let alone Obama.

  • "...the promise of stem cell science might well outweigh any doubts." - Again, Bush was sufficiently impressed with the promise of stem cell research that he permitted it, and even permitted limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Does this mean that Bush didn't respect the "personhood" of embryos, or does it mean that he (and people who served him... like Levin) never met a moral principle that couldn't be bent?

Further, where's the morality in Levin's alternative position. The rare exception of "snowflake children" aside (just over 300 kids born as the result of an eight-year campaign), if not used for research there are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos stored in fertility clinics that will either be discarded as medical waste or die in a freezer. That's a morally superior outcome? That's a moral acknowledgment of their personhood?
In a barely concealed swipe at his predecessor, he pledged that his administration would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
Given Bush's scientific legacy, shame on Obama for being indirect.

In pledging to advance science, Obama acknowledges the importance of ethics - of morality - and the importance in making sure that stem cell research is conducted in an ethical manner. This is a vastly superior approach to both science and ethics than that of Bush. You can't address issues like this while avoiding any intrusion of morality or religion; but you can recognize the nature and importance of science, and any responsible President should openly and unambiguously reject the anti-scientific propagandizing, distortion, and policy-making of the Bush Administration.

Perhaps Obama could have added another paragraph or two to his speech about the moral issues. But let's be honest. That wouldn't have affected more than a sentence or two of Levin's editorial, and his conclusion would have remained the same. Note that there is no policy suggestion in the editorial - it's an attack on Obama for parting ways with Bush's cowardly compromise. His implied conclusion, one can reasonably infer, is the one he has more explicitly stated elsewhere but here chooses to imply with his headline: that embryonic stem cell research is a form of eugenics that verges on Nazism.

1 comment:

  1. "Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was executive director of the President's Council on Bioethics from 2003 to 2005."

    Shorter Levin: My former employer's policy is not stupid, not matter what that upstart Obama says!

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