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
We must move forward, but we must do so in a responsible, respectful
manner. Stem cell research is the subject of diverse, deeply held
views. While we will not always agree, the president respects
these views. The Obama administration will support stem cell research
only when it is scientifically worthy, and carried out responsibly. Our
administration will ensure stem cell research is never taken lightly,
conducted unnecessarily or abused.
The president will vigorously oppose cloning for human reproduction.
It is dangerous, it is wrong, and it will not be tolerated. The
National Institutes of Health will continue to be prohibited from
funding research during which an embryo is destroyed.
On the heels of the Innocence Project’s 200th exoneration last year through post-conviction DNA testing, the United States Supreme Court has decided to take up a case that will determine whether all prisoners should have a right to such tests. Many of the requests for new DNA tests come from prisoners convicted prior to the widespread use of genetics in criminal cases or before the technology reached its current level of sophistication. Six states currently do not have laws to allow prisoners access to DNA evidence after their conviction.
Although the right to further testing may seem obvious, victims rights groups, most states, and the federal government are in strong opposition. They are concerned with frivolous claims, overburdening the system, and the need for finality. This is unfortunate; all of these parties should be heavily invested in making sure innocent people aren’t languishing behind bars.
While the use of DNA in the criminal justice system raises a number of issues (see Chapter 3 of Playing the Gene Card?), there’s an important difference between using genetic technologies to exclude those wrongly accused and using them to fish for suspects. Given that many speculate that the 200+ people freed by the Innocence Project is only the tip of the iceberg regarding false convictions, it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court balances these competing interests.
President Obama was appropriately cautious, warning that
the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and should not
be overstated. Some of the benefits, he said, might not appear in our
lifetime or even our children’s lifetime....
Other important embryonic research is still being hobbled by the
so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment. The amendment, which is regularly
attached to appropriations bills for the Department of Health and Human
Services, prohibits the use of federal funds to support scientific work
that involves the destruction of human embryos (as happens when stem
cells are extracted) or the creation of embryos for research purposes.
Until that changes, scientists who want to create embryos — and extract
stem cells — matched to patients with specific diseases will have to
rely on private or state support.
"We will develop strict guidelines, which we will
rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse,"
the president said yesterday at the White House. But he offered little
indication of where he would draw those lines....
The White House said that Mr. Obama doesn't want to prejudge the NIH
guidelines but that this will not be the last we'll hear from Mr. Obama
on this subject. We hope not. Some of these ethical questions need to
be dealt with in the political arena, and not just by scientists.
reversal of former President George W. Bush's ban on such funding is
good news for the science needed to find treatments for currently
incurable conditions and for the ethics at stake in the issue....
utter ethical incoherence of the policy that Obama is now happily
putting to rest was reflected by Bush never doing anything to close
American infertility clinics. Studies I conducted and that others have
done show that human embryos are routinely destroyed at many IVF
clinics for a variety of reasons as an unavoidable part of the effort
to help the infertile to have children.
Not only do some
clinics destroy embryos, others accumulate them — in huge numbers. When
a doctor is not an immoral lunatic like the one who treated the recent
mother of octuplets, Nadya Sulemin, he or she puts aside some embryos
so as to avoid the tragedy of mega-multiple births.
[H]owever much we may disagree on the morality of using stem cells for research or clinical purposes, 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.
The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture....
We [anti-torture liberals] believe, as Obama does, that it's possible to save lives without crossing a moral line that might corrupt us. We reject the Bush administration's insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives....
The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.
Yuval Levin, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center:
But science policy is not just a matter of science. Like all policy, it calls for a balancing of priorities and concerns, and it requires a judgment of needs and values that in a democracy we trust to our elected officials. In science policy, science informs, but politics governs, and rightly so.
There are, of course, different ways for politics to exert authority over science. To distort or hide unwelcome facts is surely illegitimate. But to weigh facts against societal priorities -- economic, political and ethical -- in making decisions is the very definition of policymakers' duty. And to govern the practice of scientific techniques that threaten to violate important moral boundaries is not only legitimate but in some cases essential. ...
Science policy questions do often require a grasp of complex details, which scientists can help to clarify. But at their core they are questions of priorities and worldviews, just like other difficult policy judgments.
Modern science offers tremendously powerful means of knowing and doing. It is the role of elected policymakers to consider the knowledge that science offers and the power it gives us, and to balance these with other priorities -- be they economic as in the case of environmental policy, strategic as in the case of nonproliferation or moral as in the case of embryonic stem cells. In all these areas, politics ought to govern, with science merely its handmaiden. Science is a glorious thing, but it is no substitute for wisdom, prudence or democracy.
Members of Congress and advocates for fighting diseases have long spoken of human embryonic stem cell research as if it were a sure avenue to quick cures for intractable afflictions. Scientists have not publicly objected to such high-flown hopes, which have helped fuel new sources of grant money like the $3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.
In private, however, many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells. Their chief interest is to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with specific diseases, and by tracking the cells in the test tube to develop basic knowledge about how the disease develops.
But Mr. Obama’s decision, announced Monday, has removed the original
raison d’être for the California program and others like it. And with
most states facing severe budget pressures, it may prove difficult to
justify spending the money.
With the many advances in stem cell research of the past eight years because of both private and public dollars, this is a good time to critically analyze the promise of embryonic stem cells, particularly as replacement cells to cure dread illnesses like diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. That evaluation must be done without bias and be based on the best science available. But science itself must remain within the bounds of a society that trusts and supports it. In that sense, its research has always been constrained by an ethical, legal, and social framework that reflects far more than the needs and perspectives of scientists.