Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is Obama behind the times on stem cells?

He's so eloquent, I'll just let him say it.


Political opponents reacted by calling Obama "behind the times" on stem cells. After all, there are now ways of making ES cells without destroying embryos:



If you listen closely to Obama, you'll realize that he knows this, too. But he also realizes that Bush's opposition to ES cell research was a symbolic gesture - fueled by anti-abortion ideology, not science. By overturning the Bush ban, Obama is laying down his own criterion for science policy - that it should be guided by facts, and not ideology.

What are the facts? The embryos used to derive embryonic stem cells are tiny balls of about 100 cells, without sensory organs or circulatory systems. Our society is willing to discard them for the sake of IVF, just to give parents their own biological child instead of adopting. Certainly, we should be willing to discard them for the sake of research which may cure untreatable diseases. The destruction of adult farm animals, just so we can enjoy the pleasure of eating their meat, poses a far greater ethical dilemma than embryonic stem cell research.

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10 comments:

Dave L said...

I agree with you that President Obama deserves praise for his support of stem cell research. This issue is personal for him -- he watched his mother die of cancer when she was still in her 50’s.

“The destruction of adult farm animals, just so we can enjoy the pleasure of eating their meat, poses a far greater ethical dilemma than embryonic stem cell research.”

I am going to have disagree with that statement. I think that snuffing out a potential (human) life is much more serious than slaughtering a farm animal. Of course, neither of our positions are based upon science, but rather upon our own ethical reasoning/influences. We cannot discover which action poses bigger ethical problem through empirical research.

YZF said...

Good for Pres. Obama!

But about your last line: I've never understood why eating meat would be unethical. From a religious perspective, it's (generally) condoned for sacrifices and ritual meals, and has at least been practiced for as long as we have recorded history. And from a naturalistic perspective, it's just the strong preying on the weak. Whether pray or prey, it's all very logical -- so what's the problem?

Hey, I'm only asking 'cause you brought it up!

Samurai Scientist said...

Glad to see we are in general agreement about embryonic stem cell research being a good idea.

@Dave,
I think that snuffing out a potential (human) life is much more serious than slaughtering a farm animal... We cannot discover which action poses bigger ethical problem through empirical research.

But wouldn't you agree that empirical research can inform ethical decisions? For example, empirical research reveals that killing a farm animal causes pain, while dissolving an embryo does not.

@stooge,
I've never understood why eating meat would be unethical... .Whether pray or prey, it's all very logical -- so what's the problem?

It's true that "it's just an animal." Nevertheless, it is clear that animals suffer just as much as humans. (They also love, learn, think, sense, and poop as we do.) Hurting animals comes with the same ethical quandaries as hurting people.

A wise rabbi once said that the heart of religion is "love thy neighbor as thyself". Similarly, the Bible itself several times forbids causing animals to suffer. Sparing animals from slaughter is a natural extension of those principles.

Ari said...

I think it's disingenuous to say that "By overturning the Bush ban, Obama is laying down his own criterion for science policy - that it should be guided by facts, and not ideology."

There is almost by definition an ideological component to this decision. Science can provide facts, but at its core this is a question of ethics: Is it ethical to destroy an embryo for research? This is an admittedly crude analogy, but by the same token you could say that science dictates that harvesting all the organs of a healthy person could save the lives of tens of people, and therefore science dictates that we should do it. You can't just ignore the ethical issues, which exist independent of the scientific issues.

My point is that it's easy to say that science alone should dictate the policy if you don't think there's an ethical problem, but to say that science alone provides the answers is mistaken. Science should inform the decision, along with ethical and ideological considerations. When you don't think the ethical issues are a problem, you call people that do "anti-science." Here's a blog post that I think explains this point well

Dave L said...

Yes, I agree that empirical research can help inform an ethical opinion (somewhat). But I am concerned about the conclusions that are drawn from the research. If feeling pain is the only criterion for ending life, I worry about the following logic: if we kill a cow to provide only $2000 worth of food and cosmetics, then we should certainly kill a child who is born in a vegetative state and has less ability to feel pain (and certainly less cognition) than a cow so as to save taxpayers millions of dollars in the child‘s long term care.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Ari, thx for your comment.

There is almost by definition an ideological component to this decision. Science can provide facts, but at its core this is a question of ethics: Is it ethical to destroy an embryo for research? ...You can't just ignore the ethical issues, which exist independent of the scientific issues.

My point is that it's easy to say that science alone should dictate the policy if you don't think there's an ethical problem, but to say that science alone provides the answers is mistaken. Science should inform the decision, along with ethical and ideological considerations.


I don't think anyone is debating this. Obama certainly took into account 'ethical and ideological considerations'. I wasn't able to post the whole speech on the blog, but you can listen to it here.

My point - and I believe this is Obama's reasoning as well, if you listen closely to the speech - is that the ethics here are clear, and were clear from the start. Bush's opposition to embryonic stem cell research was based fundamentally on his anti-abortion ideology. Obama understands that one should not confuse science and health policy with abortion politics.

There may be a very small minority of Americans who really believe destruction of an embryo in a petri dish for research purposes is a serious ethical dilemma. They should also be opposed to IVF. Such views are extreme and taken about as seriously as people who oppose the slaughter of animals for food on ethical grounds ;)

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave,

If feeling pain is the only criterion for ending life, I worry about the following logic: if we kill a cow to provide only $2000 worth of food and cosmetics, then we should certainly kill a child who is born in a vegetative state and has less ability to feel pain (and certainly less cognition) than a cow so as to save taxpayers millions of dollars in the child‘s long term care.

I like the way you're thinking, and the question you raise is a good one. Be aware that our government makes decisions like these every single day when it dictates safety regulative policy. I believe the current value of a human life is somewhere around $150,000.

I will whip it right back at you. If you believe that the value of a single human life is so tantamount, then under what situation is the taking of such a life ever justified? I will remind you that our country has recently caused the deaths of >100,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians.

YZF said...

You're getting into Watchmen territory again, aintcha? ;)

YZF said...

Charles Krauthammer with a different take... he agrees with the message, but calling BS on the actual content of the speech:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/12/AR2009031202764.html

His point about Bush was interesting. I don't remember that speech.

Samurai Scientist said...

@YZF,
You're getting into Watchmen territory again, aintcha? ;)

Can't avoid it.

Charles Krauthammer

I'm not sure Krauthammer (a dyed-in-the-wool conservative) is yakkin' about. It sounds like he doesn't want cloning of human embryos for organ parts... Obama is also against this, and said so openly in his speech.

Krauthammer makes a good point, however, that Obama should not be so strictly against human reproductive cloning. If people are allowed to have children without government supervision, they should also be allowed to clone themselves, or anybody else for that matter.

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