Tuesday, May 26, 2009
President Obama often tries to defuse divisive debates by talking of "false choices." A false choice implies that by restating the argument, both sides can get what they want.
On economics, Obama speaks of the false choice between "unforgiving capitalism and an oppressive government-run economy." On torture, he points to a false choice "between our security and our ideals." And when the dispute centers on embryonic stem cell research, he speaks of "a false choice between sound science and moral values."
Unfortunately, what Obama sometimes calls a "false choice" is merely a hard choice. And his tendency to split the difference results in "false change." Such is the case in the president's compromise over federal support for stem-cell research. Embryonic stem cell science may someday produce cures for Alzheimer's and other dread diseases.
That's why the public supports the research by more than two to one. There is, however, a vocal minority opposed to this work because it requires the destruction of embryos. To keep the peace, Obama proposed new guidelines that go only halfway toward freeing embryonic stem-cell research. Some of the most promising investigations will still be denied federal funding.
"They yielded to political pressure when they didn't have to," Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. To be sure, some of the policy changes are significant. They overturn the Bush rules that allowed federal funding for work on only 21 stem-cell lines made from embryos that had already been destroyed.
These stem-cell colonies were of limited use. And they end the ban on funding for research using frozen embryos from fertility clinics, if the donor couples agree to release them for that purpose. There are now about 400,000 excess frozen embryos. But Obama wouldn't budge on the prohibition against funding research that allows for the creation of embryos out of human cells. The process is called therapeutic cloning and is important because it lets scientists work with cells taken from a patient.
The body is less likely to reject tissues and organs made from one's own cells. Bear in mind that therapeutic cloning has little to do with human cloning, which is about making new people and is illegal most everywhere. But say that cloning is being used in research, and a lot of folks think they're going to have a clone as a neighbor in a few years.
The administration's compromise throws a wrench in the ethical argument over destroying embryos. Foes of embryonic stem-cell research hold that embryos are full human beings. Supporters say that these 6-day-old clusters of cells are not human beings.
This is a religious, not a scientific, debate. But by allowing the use of embryos from fertility clinics and not those created by researchers, the administration lends credence to the view that embryos are full human beings. "You're giving validity to a bad moral argument," Caplan says, "that embryos are people." Let it be noted that the Bush rules were rife with hypocrisy.
They forbade the use of fertility clinic embryos, even though they were being routinely discarded by the tens of thousands. The thinking was, better throw them down the drain than let scientists work with them. The only difference between embryos in fertility clinics and the ones cloned for research is the motive of the people who created them.
Creating embryos to help couples have children would seem a worthy enterprise -- but so too is creating embryos to seek cures for horrible diseases. Obama's timidity in rewriting the guidelines has slowed down important research and produced more confusion. And for Americans praying for cures from this science, the choice seems rather clear.
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