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.