Jeff Jacoby

Embryos and ethics

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / March 15, 2009
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SHORTLY AFTER the president announced his new policy on funding embryonic stem-cell research, CNN's Larry King devoted a special program to the subject. His first guest was Mary Tyler Moore, the international chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation who has long been involved in raising funds and awareness for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes, a disease for which there is still no cure.

"I am so pleased with the thought and care that he put into making this decision. I think it's a good one," Moore told King. "What's wonderful too is that this means that the United States will maintain its leadership in things medical and scientific."

Moore's words of praise might not strike you as exceptional, given the widespread approval last week of President Obama's order reversing the Bush administration's restrictions. But Moore wasn't speaking about Obama. Her interview on "Larry King Live" followed President Bush's stem-cell decision, which was announced in a televised address on Aug. 9, 2001. Also joining the conversation that night was Christopher Reeve. His take on Bush's policy was "a little bit more mixed," he acknowledged. "However, I think it is a step in the right direction. I'm grateful for that to the president."

For eight years Bush's foes caricatured him as a Bible-thumping yahoo for whom ideology routinely trumped science, so it might be difficult to remember that the policy he articulated in 2001 was anything but a knee-jerk rejection of scientific progress. The commentator Charles Krauthammer - a graduate of Harvard Medical School, a quadriplegic, and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics who did not agree with Bush's decision - recalled it a few days ago as "the single most morally serious presidential speech on medical ethics ever given." In it, Bush explained why "embryonic stem-cell research offers both great promise and great peril," conscientiously laying out the arguments for and against supporting such research with tax dollars. He concluded that federal funding could be justified for work on existing stem-cell lines, but not for research that would mean destroying more human embryos.

Obama had an opportunity last week to deliver an equally thoughtful speech. He could have explored the moral dilemmas involved in exploiting a living embryo to advance scientific knowledge. Instead he resorted to political rhetoric and scorn for his predecessor.

The president rejected the "false choice between sound science and moral values" that supposedly characterized the Bush policy. He declared that his administration would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." Promoting science, Obama said, means "letting scientists . . . do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion" and "listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient."

But science is not an unqualified good, and scientific ends do not justify any and all means. It is not "manipulation" or "coercion" or "ideology" to insist that scientific research - especially when funded by taxpayers - be restrained by moral and ethical guardrails. The loss of those guardrails can lead to such abominations as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which government doctors - with the support of the American Medical Association - deliberately withheld medical treatment from infected black men in order to better understand the natural progression of venereal disease. Those who raised ethical qualms about the study were disregarded by the Public Health Service - an example of what Obama might call rejecting the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

Like most Americans, I don't believe that microscopic human embryos deserve all the legal protections of personhood. But whether it is right to destroy such embryos for the sake of medical research is not just a question about science; it is also a question of moral and political judgment. Obama blithely concedes that "many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research." Yet at no point did he articulate or address those concerns let alone attempt to allay them.

"If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable," Dr. James Thomson, the pioneer of embryonic stem-cell science, said in 2007, "you have not thought about it enough." Thomson's remark has been widely quoted, but it seems not everyone has gotten the message.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at

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