Monday, March 23, 2009

A Response to President Obama's Order for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

On a basic level it is obvious and beyond dispute that embryos are developing human life. If you compare their features to the developing embryos of another species they are not that species but the human species. And you have to engage in a kind of special treatment of language to say that they are not life. This generally means opting for a non-biological signs of life criteria, criteria which tend to be a lot more subjective, such as “personhood” and “consciousness”. When it comes to this, there is a debate. Some like Peter Singer will acknowledge the obvious, that fetuses are human, but then he will argue that this does not mean that we should not kill them and he and others go into debate about the permissibility and ethical calculations in this regard. That debate needs to be carried out, but the Obama position is that there is no viable debate. It is the enforcement of one view on the public. And he does it by advancing lines that belie distorted or unjust assumptions. Robert George: “The announcement was classic Obama: advancing radical policies while seeming calm and moderate, and preaching the gospel of civility while accusing those who disagree with the policies of being "divisive" and even "politicizing science." “ If I were embracing Darwinian race theory and assuming not only that blacks were lower on the biological hierarchy but that they were actually a threat to the health and well-being of my biological race, but must be tolerated for the sake of compassion, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century I would not lack a majority among scientists (not a conspiracy then but a twisted culture). Although my stance could find support from the likes of Ernst Haeckel, and though it seemed profitable to give care to the moral hygiene of people, so that I would agree with Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr. that we don’t need any more degenerates and therefore we should sterilize “the morally degenerate”, wouldn’t it be not only wrong, in the sense of an intellectual error, to hold these views, but morally wrong? The way President Obama frames it, the question of whether scientists should experiment on human embryos is a question best left to the scientists. It is not a moral but a scientific question. This is not science but the indiscriminate idolatry of science. Let me ask you why we think so highly of science in our society? Isn’t it because of a proven track record of being able to produce knowledge and material gains? But aren’t these the result of a dogged pursuit of truth in investigation of material causality? Isn’t the honor we give science properly given in so far as the science is a pursuit of the truth? Doesn’t science derive its due honor from truth? Isn’t truth above science, and science properly the servant of truth? Here is an NIH scientist on truth and embryonic stem cells: “In the summer before the 2004 Presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells- but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people ‘need a fairy tale.’ They require, he said, ‘a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.’” What would become of science if scientists as a whole adopted this attitude toward truth and asked in their representation of the truth of the material world (which of course scientists sometimes do) what does it matter if it’s true as long as it is beneficial? (I wonder if the science community as well as the press fell prey to what became the Hwang fiasco largely because of this sort of susceptibility to the benefit of fairy tales and useful myths.) To my ears this is a subtle or not so subtle betrayal of what is good about science and suggests more a care for the veneer and the politics and how to use science for one’s limited view. It is a focus on what we think the truth ought to be, rather than a focus on the truth.
Melody Barnes, the President ’s domestic policy advisor, wrote a column extolling the President ’s executive order and she takes up the same lines I find so onerous in President Obama’s speech, establishing it is a line the administration is choosing to follow. ( ):
She writes: “The order will allow responsible researchers to conduct potentially life-saving work that could benefit millions of Americans who suffer from debilitating diseases. Just as importantly, the President 's executive order closes the book on an era that put politics first and science a distant second.
[The claim is directed primarily at President Bush’s embryonic stem cell policy, of course, and the claim is that the reservation he showed toward experimentation on live human embryos was politics before science. (I consider you might think that using the term “live human embryos” weights the argument but I think you have to given reasons why that should be bracketed).]
“Under the Bush administration's restrictions, the National Institutes of Health was allowed to fund human embryonic stem cell research on cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001 and was prohibited from conducting research on cell lines created after that date. The August date was arbitrary, a function of the political calendar, and without any basis in science…. Instead, we will embrace the potential stem cell research offers, ensure this research is conducted responsibly and rely on scientists - not politicians - as we work to cure disease and ensure more Americans live longer, healthier, happier lives… The president's order lifts this restriction. From this time forward, decisions about federal funding of stem cell research will be based on scientific principles. In the Obama administration, the scientific community will be empowered, but not unaccountable. Scientists who wish to conduct stem cell research must do so in a responsible manner and the president Obama will not allow scientists to leave our shared values at the laboratory door. But unlike the past eight years, political ideology will no longer trump sound science. “
[Here she is taking the same line one can see in Obama’s speech ( ). They both attempt to relegate the question of whether we should experiment on human embryos to science, but that is not properly a question that science can answer. She does refer to “our shared values” and says that experimentation on embryos should be done responsibly but this ignores or dodges the moral question of whether research on embryonic stem cells should be done at all (in the actual situation of current science and not in some abstraction). Ascribing to science moral questions suggests a superficiality to the professed honoring of science because rather than honoring and valuing the actual work that science does, it focuses on the veneer. The gains from science are allowed to induce a gold rush mentality in the bystander and as result they become enamored, not with science itself, but with the veneer, with the power and prestige that adheres to it. Consequently, rather than really knowing it and cherishing it, they idolize it and ascribe to it powers beyond its purview. And our whole society becomes accustomed to this so that we don’t bat an eye when we are told that we should relegate our moral decision-making to science technocrats and Mustapha Mond.
Writing in 2008, Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen observed the current tendency for conflation in this area which can be seem all over the press as well as in Obama’s speech:“It is critical to engage seriously with embryo ethics today. For it is not uncommon to hear embryo researchers and their supporters claim that only science should have a say in what science does, and that ethics, and religion, and politics have no business in the concerns of science. Such sentiments should sound familiar to anyone who has listened to proponents of such research defend the freedoms and even the imperatives of scientific research.” from Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. ]
It seems to me that much of the argument for embryonic stem cell research and much of the policy is guided by indiscriminate acceptance of what have becomes currently unquestioned commonplaces. The argument proceeds from assuming that IVF and abortion are not morally problematic. Here is one author, Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in The New Yorker arguing along this lines: “Stem cells for research are drawn from blastocysts—embryos that are a few days old, consist of several dozen cells, and are smaller by far than the pinhead on which theology’s angels dance. Infertility clinics create and freeze such embryos in the thousands every year, and the vast majority—more than ninety per cent—are never implanted in a woman’s womb. Whether these excess blastocysts are simply discarded, as the opponents of stem-cell research would apparently prefer, or whether a few hundred of them become the basis for a biomedical alchemy that could benefit millions, the amount of actual human suffering entailed would be the same: zero.” He raises two main points in that paragraph, as I see it, but I am focusing right now on the first. The argument goes that because IVF clinics produce embryos in the thousands every year they should be used and not wasted. But is it right and was it ever right to assist fertility by a method producing embryos which would be destroyed? A lot of the arguments I here are basically going with what has become commonplace, the moral landscape such as it is, not questioning its moral validity on its own merits. When IVF clinics were first coming into existence advocates such as Ellen Goodman dismissed the possibility of what has become the norm. In 1980 she wrote: “A fear of many protesting the opening of this clinic is that doctors will fertilize a myriad of eggs and discard the ‘extras’ and the abnormal, as if they were no more meaningful than a dish of caviar. But this fear seems largely unwarranted.” Years later, faced with the new norm, she simply changed her mind. This illustrates the slippery slope down which the respect for life has gone. Obama’s refusal to support protections for infants who escaped the womb during an abortion seems to me a new stage in the slippery slope, but not the last. As for the point that the embryos feel no pain, pain is hardly the mark of a person’s worth. If it were conceived to be possibly to the health advantage of someone or to a group of persons if a man were to be suddenly annihilated before he would even have a chance to blink, say with a nuclear laced shell or something like that, so that he had no chance to feel pain or awareness of his fate, the sacrifice of another for one’s own good would still be a lessening of the greatest good of the survivors, the good which encompasses more than physical well being. Also, those who follow this line of reason seem inevitably to end up sanctioning the pain and death of more developed human beings as well. People don’t want to fight any more about abortion. They are willing to yield truth for harmony with the social norm of the day and yield to its trajectory, whatever way it is going.
I would like to talk further about the view of science. Instead of understanding science as the investigation of material causality, definitions such as its being “methodological naturalism” or “methodological atheism” betray a desire to convert science into a total worldview. C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man focuses in on this aspect of modernity which postmodernity has inherited, the inability to think with clarity and articulateness about the moral, the inability to acknowledge the moral and the sublime without occlusions. This is illustrated by attempts to subsume questions of morality under science which is incapable of answering those questions. The President and Melody Barnes’ statements provide good examples of this conflation. As philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, the moral sources are occulted. They are necessarily occluded and covered over because they are supposed to fit within science, or science mythologized (my words, not his) and close inspection of science reveals the contradiction. Nevertheless, moral language is still used, often with stridency, but its connection with a truth and reality in which science is suppose to be the one, true, supreme authority providing all the answers cannot bare inspection and demands occulting.
This has consequences. It is not enough to say you don’t believe an embryo is a human. I think Peter Singer recognizes the kind of nihilistic abyss suggested for morals by the assumption that science encompasses all. Since he holds the assumption, instead of arguing that unborn babies are not human, he begins to elaborate arguments for periods of say 28 days after birth for parents to decide whether to keep or kill the infants. Science can provide no rationale for valuing humans.
What science actually tells us is that embryos are human:“…Moore and Persaud write that the initial totipotent cell that is the result of fertilization ‘marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual (italics added).’ William Larsen writes that male and female sex cells ‘unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual.’ Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Muller state that ‘a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte (italics added).’
All these embryologists and developmental biologists, who are collectively responsible for the standard textbooks in their fields, agree in marking fertilization… as the beginning of a human individual.” (from Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen).
What science tells you is that the embryo is a living human. What it doesn’t tell you is the worth of the human. Social norms through history have divided the worth of humans into different categories of value. For instance, the Dred-Scott decision in the US created the legal fiction “that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants-- whether or not they were slaves—were not legal persons and could never be citizens of the United States” (from Wikipedia entry for Dred Scott v. Sandford). Another example of such a division of peoples worth is the caste system in India, which falls hardest on the ‘untouchables’. These are unjust doctrines and legal fictions that issue in injustices. The Gospel is different because “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor freeman, but all are one in Christ Jesus”. It is different because Jesus would not bruise a broken reed. It is different because Jesus identified with the discarded and the least and taught his followers to do the same.
Adult stem cells have more demonstrated potential than embryonic stem cells already, and both have been experimented on for some time now throughout the world. One entirely avoids the moral problem of experimenting on the human and commodifying the contents of women’s bodies, especially poor women, and procedures that pose danger to those women. It also makes the point of the bodies possible rejection of the embryos moot because adult stem cells come from the same person. Nevertheless, it is not as if the playing field is now leveled between ESC and Adult Stem Cell Research. President Obama rescinded the Presidential order encouraging research into alternatives to embryonic stem cell research. I find the logic in Wesley Smith’s statement regarding this (from the article I cited above) convincing: (from “The big news in biotechnology in 2007-08--proving the wisdom of the Bush policy--was the development of a technique known as "cell reprogramming," in which ordinary human skin and other cells are transformed into "induced pluripotent stem cells" (IPSC). This achievement and subsequent advances in research were deemed so impressive and important that the journal Science named the development of the IPSC as the scientific "breakthrough of the year" for 2008.
As criticism of Obama's betrayal of alternative sources has slowly bubbled up in cyberspace, some have claimed that he "had" to rescind the order because it contained a clause describing embryos as human life. Here is the offending text from the Bush 2007 executive order: Section 2 (d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold;But that clause is not only accurate biology--human embryos and fetuses are not Martian, after all--but also reflects federal law. Besides, if telling the biological truth in an executive order so seared the delicate Obama sensibility, he could have reissued the alternatives-funding order omitting the biological facts about nascent human life--and then publicized it as an example of a bridge across the cultural divide that he has promised to erect.
I can think of only two reasons for this unwarranted revocation: vindictiveness against all things "Bush" or considered by the left to be "pro-life"; or a desire to get the public to view unborn human life as morally akin to a crop ripe for the harvest so as to open the door to funding destructive embryo and human cloning research--actions advocated, not coincidentally, by the New York Times in the immediate wake of Obama's stem-cell executive order. Wait, there's a third potential reason: both of the above.
President Obama's silent revocation of alternative-methods funding as a special project of the federal government betrayed the concerted attempts made over the last eight years to find a common way forward in one of the most ethically contentious areas of biotechnological research. So much for bridging the country's cultural and political divides. So much for transparency in governance. So much for taking the politics out of science.”
[Ultimately Obama injected a lot more politics and ideology into the issue than he claimed or thought, it appears, and that he believes it makes it all the worse.]