Tue, Mar 17, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Moral arguments come up short in stem cell debate

By Peter Steinfels  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Almost no one was surprised last week when US President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on stem cell research that involved the destruction of human embryos. Even jaded Washington watchers are adjusting to the idea that this is a president with an eerie determination to do exactly what he said he would do during his campaign.

Those who approve such research applauded Obama's action. Those who disapprove condemned it. But some commentary focused at least as much on the nature of the president's moral argument as on the specific conclusions he reached.

When it comes to the controversy over human embryonic stem cell research, moral argument has not been much in evidence. The president spoke of a popular consensus in favor of it reached “after much discussion, debate and reflection.” That is a kindly description of the hype, exaggeration and denunciation that have dominated the controversy.

Politicians, scientists and Hollywood stars conjured up visions of cures of biblical proportions. One member of the House of Representatives equated opposition to embryonic stem cell research with refusing “a cure for your child’s cancer.” Another called such opposition “a sentence of death of millions of Americans.”

Not long after the death of former US president Ronald Reagan, his younger son, Ron, told delegates at the 2004 Democratic convention to imagine “your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital.”

“Sound like magic?” Reagan said. “Welcome to the future of medicine.”

Scientists who knew better kept quiet.

“People need a fairy tale,” Ronald McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explained to the Washington Post in 2004.

Recently, Nicholas Wade in the Science section of the New York Times summed this all up: “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 US$3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.

“In private, however,” the article continued, “many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells.”

Last Monday, Obama certainly avoided the worst of this recent history. He warned twice against overstating the promise of stem cell research, even if he did envision “a day when words like ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ are finally retired from our vocabulary.”

More important, he acknowledged that “thoughtful and decent people” opposed this research, and he claimed to “understand their concerns.” His own view was that “with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.”

What were those “concerns” that Obama understood or those “perils” that he would avoid? The president did not say. So one could object that his moral argument stopped in mid-air. How can one evaluate what he called “a difficult and delicate balance” when it is not clear exactly what is being balanced?

The more challenging objection — again, not to the president’s specific stance on embryonic stem cell research, but to the general form of his argument — went directly to a theme running through his announcement and echoed in enthusiastic comments from research proponents:

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