Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is Obama Really Removing Politics from Science?

Is that even possible? Robert George and Eric Cohen write to answer that question in today's Wall Street Journal.
First, the Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos. Inexplicably -- apart from political motivations -- Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.

Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is in the deepest sense antidemocratic. The question of whether to destroy human embryos for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.

For those who believe in the highest ideals of deliberative democracy, and those who believe we mistreat the most vulnerable human lives at our own moral peril, Mr. Obama's claim of "taking politics out of science" should be lamented, not celebrated.

Not only is President Obama unable to remove politics from science, it is undesirable to do so. Scientific inquiry should be encouraged and developed at our universities, in research labs, and in private industry but it should not be at the price of avoiding the pressing moral questions of our day. Questions of morals and ethics ought to be grappled with in our communities and not covered over with disingenuous language that the day of debate has passed. This is America. The day of debate never passes. We engage in the discussion because issues of life and death matter to us all.

Most of us, unfortunately, have stood at a bedside or in a hospital as a family member or friend succumbed to a debilitating disease presently uncurable. Scientific breakthroughs in treating and preventing these diseases are exciting. Research targeting adult and amniotic stem cells, like that being done at Wake Forest University, are providing opportunities to expand scientific inquiry without calling into question the value of human life.

No matter the scientific advancements of a still new century, issues of life and death will not soon be obsolete. The way to honor our lost loved ones memories is not to devalue the significance of human life. The more compromises we make when it comes to what constitutes life, the less that is left worthy of protection.