Thoughtlessness in the Halls of Power: The Administration, Congress…

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aul_logo.jpg When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released its new guidelines for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) on July 6, observers noted a significant change from the Institutes’ earlier proposed guidelines. Under the earlier proposals, all stem-cell lines would have to meet certain procedural requirements to make sure that the stem cells used were obtained ethically. Under the finalized guidelines, stem cell-lines which have already been created with private funding will be individually reviewed to see whether they meet the “spirit” of the guidelines (e.g., informed consent on the part of the original embryo donors) rather than the procedural requirements which will be required of new lines for which funding is sought.[1]

The Washington Post reported that embryonic stem cell lines will have to meet the following requirements in order to be eligible for federal funding:

The embryo that was destroyed to create a line must have been discarded after an in vitro fertilization procedure, and the donors must have been informed that the embryo would be destroyed for stem-cell research and made fully cognizant of their choices, including donating the embryo to another couple who want a baby. No donors could have been paid for an embryo, and no threats or inducements could have been used to nudge couples toward making a donation.[2]

What is notable about these ethical guidelines is not their specific terms, but that they are ethical guidelines. That is, they are limits placed on the government funding of research not for scientific reasons, but for ethical reasons. Contrast this with the White House website’s proclamation when President Obama signed his Executive Order mandating the new guidelines: “President Obama lifts restrictions on stem cell research and ensures sound science will no longer fall victim to politics.” Here, we see a two-step rhetorical sleight of hand: first ethical arguments are reduced to “politics,” then “politics” is dismissed as less valuable than science.

Rep. Diana Degette (D-CO), a prominent leader in the House of Representatives, displays a similar indifference to non-scientific arguments and sources of knowledge. As Yuval Levin noted in a recent article on bioethical political issues, “DeGette takes any argument about science that is not itself a purely scientific argument to be essentially illegitimate.”[3]   For instance, Rep. Degette said of the Bush Administration’s stem-cell research funding policy: “Clearly, this was not a scientific decision. It was a political decision,”[4]  as if the only viable source of knowledge for governance is science, and science qua science can dictate a particular policy result. In Degette’s view, not only is politics less valuable than science; it is incompatible with science. Since the Bush Administration’s policies on ESCR did not simply maximize the range of options open to researchers, the policies were anti-science and even acknowledging ethical questions is out of bounds.

President Obama’s signing statement declared that the goal of his Administration was to ensure that “we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” and that “scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda.” The insinuation is that the ethical justifications advanced by President Bush for his policies were not only pretextual (“politics”) but inadmissible, as non-scientific arguments, to the public conversation.

Of course, President Obama’s actual views on the relationship between ethics and science are more nuanced than his speechwriting staff’s know-nothing cry of “science, science über alles!”  It would, in some respects, be quite pleasant to have a crew of little half-men, half-piglet clones to fetch me fresh coffee and light my cigars. But President Obama would almost certainly object to this. What are the advantages and disadvantages of allowing me to create a handy breed of Halfling slaves with cute, curly tails? Science, by itself, cannot tell us. In articulating his objections, the President would appeal to ethical norms such as equality, dignity, and autonomy. In fact, outside his speeches, the President acknowledges the inherent role of ethics in policy-making. When questioned about his Executive Order, the President said that “there’s always an ethical and a moral element that has to be . . . a part of this. . . . But I think that this was the . . . the ethical thing to do.”[5]  That is, he argues that his policy is based not simply on science, but on ethics.

As the President acknowledges, public policy always draws on ethical beliefs. Policy choices about the funding and regulation of scientific research depend not only on the scientific potential for discovery as such, but considerations such as the ends of science, the relative value of different potential research outcomes, the relative value of knowledge as such, and the absolute moral boundaries we must not cross. Creating a race of half-sentient piggie servants for myself is not wrong because it is “unscientific” (the only potential objection with which Rep. Degette’s screed leaves her equipped), but because—among other reasons—slavery is a morally illegitimate end for science to pursue. Science is able to pursue this end (scientific truth), but it ought not (ethical truth).

Properly understood, politics is the debate over how we ought to order our lives together, and the process through which we order them. This debate is not just important but unavoidable, and it necessarily draws on ethical arguments and suppositions, whether the policy in question is related to scientific or any other human pursuits. The President, misguided as his own ethics may be, understands this.

As a politician, one for whom this process is a profession, Rep. Degette ought to understand it. It is unfortunate that she and Obama publicly pretend that such debate is itself illegitimate, that science itself points to its own ends and means, and that ethical reasons for policy decisions are merely “politics.” Of course, there is a coarser meaning of “politics”—intellectually dishonest behavior in which one engages to gain or keep power. Perhaps it is this sense in which President Obama and Rep. Degette accuse the Bush administration of “letting science fall victim to politics.” But it is precisely this sense in which, when they seek to avoid true deliberation and score points by failing to engage real ethical ideas, they are guilty of “mere politics.”

These new guidelines from the NIH remind us that no one can avoid bringing ethical judgments to the policy table. If you are in charge, though, President Obama and Rep. Degette remind us that you can try to hide your ethical judgments in the language of technocracy.


[1]  Gardiner Harris, "Rules Will Allow Financing for Old Stem Cell Lines," New York Times, July 6, 2009, available at (last visited July 16, 2009).
[2]  Shankar Vedantam, "Rules on Stem Cell Research Are Eased: More Lines Eligible for Federal Funding," Washington Post, July 7, 2009, available at (last visited July 16, 2009).
[3]  Yuval Levin, "The Confused Congresswoman," New Atlantis, Number 22, Fall 2008, pp. 85-90. available at (last visited July 14, 2009).
[4]  Diana Degette, Sex, Science, and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wind Assault on Reason (The Lyons Press, 2008), quoted in Levin, supra.
[5]  White House press conference notes, March 24, 2009, available at (last visited July 14, 2009).