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May 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 9)

Arguments against President Obama’s Stem Cell Policies

Moral Restrictions on Scientific Research Are Imperative

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    Gilbert Meilaender, Ph.D.

    On March 9, President Obama removed restrictions on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines derived by means that destroy human embryos. In his remarks on that occasion, the president depicted his action as repudiating “a false choice between sound science and moral values.”

    In those remarks, however, the president actually said little that examined the ethical issues. Indeed, as others have noted, the speech given by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on August 9, 2001, explored in much greater detail the competing moral goods at stake in decisions about embryonic stem cell research.

    The aim of the Bush administration’s policy was not to shackle scientific research, but to find a way to fund some research while also recognizing the serious moral problems the research raised. That, in fact, is precisely how the President’s Council on Bioethics formulated the question in a report released in 2004: “How can embryonic stem cell research, conducted in accordance with basic research ethics, be maximally aided within the bounds of the principle that nascent human life should not be destroyed for research?”

    We ought to be astonished by the frequency with which those who know better pursue their political purposes by talking as if the very thought of placing moral restrictions on scientific research were unacceptable. Attention to the ethical principles that ought to guide and limit research has been constant since the end of World War II. Different kinds of research have been limited, and sometimes prohibited, not in order to suppress science, but in order to free it as a genuinely human and moral activity.

    Indeed, resisting the idea that there is, as Daniel Callahan has put it, a “research imperative” has been one of the central themes of bioethics in this country from its earliest years. Whether one agrees or not with the stem cell funding policy that had been in place for more than seven years, clarity and honesty require that we acknowledge its intent: to seek a way for science to proceed, but to proceed within limits and without violating the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens. Moreover, this policy had begun to bear fruit.

Readers' Comments

Posted 05/19/2009 by Analytical Chemist

Thank you, Dr. Meilaender, for the thoughtful article about embryonic stem cell policies! I rarely hear the proponents talk about anything but the promise of this research, and they vastly exaggerate its potential. I have been working in scientific research and development for 20 years, and I have yet to hear any scientist discuss the ethical aspects of any research they perform. The technological imperative seems to me to be the only driving ethic. Science needs to submit to the public, not the other way around. Scientists are not entitled to public money just because they are scientists. We need more discussions raising the points you articulately lay out in your article. I read a quote recently from a stem cell researcher to the effect that if this kind of research doesn't give you any qualms at all, you haven't thought about it enough. I just wish more scientists would heed that approach to their work and show a bit more humility.

Posted 05/08/2009 by Professor

In addition to the conflict with moral values, new stem cell policies potentially may repeat negative outcomes of the AIDS research when over almost three decades the government over-funded vaccine studies by spending hundreds of million dollars without tangible results. In the meantime, this money could have been spent for support of other high-priority biomedical research areas, such as cancer biology, mechanism of immune response, gene therapy, etc. Funds should be distributed among multiple priority research programs avoiding political considerations and directives which can easily lead to unjustified skewed funding of science....

Posted 05/08/2009 by Director Emeritus, American Type Culture Collection

Dr. Meilaender's points are well made and the issue of deliberate creating of embryos only for subsequent dissection needs more public debate and thoughtful deliberation. The ends, no matter how worthy, do not necessarily justify the means.

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