July 6, 2022

After the applause dies down, questions linger about embryo decision

Criticism of Obama’s scientism

President Barack Obama’s speech lifting restrictions on federal funding for
human embryonic stem cell research was characteristically eloquent and was
widely applauded amongst scientists. But as a number of bioethicists and
journalists quickly pointed out, when he blasted opposition to stem cell
research as ideological, he was on very shaky ground.

The President promised
that his administration, unlike his predecessor’s, would "make scientific
decisions based on facts, not ideology". The take-home message was that he would
not hedge science around with Republican bans, prescriptions and prohibitions.
And Harold
Varmus
, co-chairman of the president’s scientific advisory council, observed
that the president would rely on "sound scientific practice… instead of dogma
in developing federal policy."

But even strong supporters of stem cell research shook their heads over
handing a blank cheque to scientists. One of America’s leading bioethicists, Daniel
Callahan
, of The Hastings Center, a non-political bioethics thinktank, wrote
that "everyone would do well to recognize that there is a fundamental difference
between ethics and science. That difference has been systematically obscured by
the widespread argument of research proponents that opposition to the research
is opposition to science."

And even Wired’s science writer, Brandon
Keim,
pointed out that "President Bush’s stem cell policy may have been
restrictive and misguided, but it wasn’t anti-science." In the Chicago Tribune,
columnist Steve
Chapman
pointed out that "Science can tell us how to build a nuclear weapon.
But science can’t tell us whether we should use it. Just because research may be
useful in combating disease doesn’t mean it’s ethically acceptable."

And Charles
Krauthammer
, a columnist for the Washington Post and a member of the
Bush-appointed President’s Council on Bioethics, scathingly recalled scientific
experiments which were clearly unethical. "How anyone as sophisticated as Obama
can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and
coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom."