I. Is Opposition to Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Anti-Science?
A 2005 New York Times article begins:
When Donald Kennedy, a biologist and editor of the eminent journal Science, was asked what had led so many American scientists to feel that George W. Bush’s administration is anti-science, he isolated a familiar pair of culprits: climate change and stem cells. These represent, he said, ”two solid issues in which there is a real difference between a strong consensus in the science community and the response of the administration to that consensus.”
There’s a world of difference between Kennedy’s two examples. For climate change, he’s alleging that the Bush administration ignored or misrepresented the data in order to advance their political agenda. If true, that’s anti-science. But for stem-cell, the Bush administration didn’t deny that stem cell had medical promise. The argument wasn’t that we couldn’t do it, but that we shouldn’t. As this editorial from Wired notes:
President Bush’s stem cell policy may have been restrictive and misguided, but it wasn’t anti-science.
In the wake of Obama’s decision to lift Bush’s funding ban, many scientists are celebrating the freedom of science from ideology. Their relief is understandable, but the rhetoric is disturbing.
The Bush administration didn’t skew stem cell research like it did environmental science: It simply said it wasn’t right.
That’s exactly right. Saying we shouldn’t do something isn’t “anti-science,” since science can’t, and doesn’t, answer questions of should and shouldn’t: those are moral and ethical questions, beyond its scope. But just because the questions are beyond the scope of science doesn’t mean that science shouldn’t be bound by them:
There are good reasons why society puts ethical boundaries on science.
The Nuremberg code is the best-known example of this. Shocked by the horrors of Nazi science, the civilized world agreed that tests should never again be conducted on people who hadn’t agreed to take part, and that test subjects should not be knowingly harmed.
The Nuremberg code was invoked by activists outraged when the Bush administration, at the chemical industry’s urging, proposed tests of pesticides on pregnant mothers and children. They weren’t being anti-scientific. They were being humane.
Exactly. The Tuskegee Experiment certainly advanced science, but it was so brutally cruel and inhumane that we shake our heads at the thought that this could have been done to human beings, here in America. Someday, we’ll likely do the same at the thought of destroying the bodies of unborn children for science. The Wired editorial concludes:
As ideology, Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell funding were legitimate.They represented a moral objection to the destruction of embryos by people who believe that life begins when sperm meets egg.It’s not an objection shared by everyone. But characterizing conscientious objectors as anti-scientific is dangerous.“No thinking person should promote a science that claims to be value-free,” said Murray. “There are plenty of experiments that would be scientifically interesting that we simply won’t do because of legitimate ethical concerns about how we treat the human subjects of research.”Most Americans now support research that Bush stifled and Obama will fund.But there will be plenty of cases in the future when the aims of science — or, to be more precise, certain scientists — conflict with widely held values. And if the legacy of the stem cell debate is to label all conscientious objection as anti-science bias, it will be a toxic legacy indeed.
This is a great point. In fact, the one mistake the editorial makes is in treating the question of when life begins as if it were a moral or ethical question. It’s not, or at least, not primarily. It’s a scientific question. And science is quite clear on it: life begins at conception. In that scientific understanding is one which informs our policy actions: for example, it’s illegal to destroy fertilized bald eagle eggs, because those are baby bald eagles. In fact, it’s the proponents of ESCR are the ones who are anti-science, in this sense: they purposes ignore or misrepresent the scientific data that embryos are human beings, unique members of the species homo sapiens, with DNA and epigenetic material distinct from both zygotes and both parents.
In fact, if one familiarizes oneself with the arguments within the Bush and Obama Administrations on the question of ESCR, it’s clear which side is the thoughtful and scientific side, and which embraces “progress” at any price. As the Hastings Center notes, Dr. Leon Kass, former head of Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, argued “that bioethics should define societal goals or ends before we decide whether to pursue various types of biotechnology,” and understood the need to keep ethical considerations at the forefront in the midst of scientific pursuits:
Now, Dr. Kass and the rest of the Council weren’t “anti-science,” obviously. Kass has a doctorate in biology from Harvard, and did molecular biology research at the National Institutes of Health before entering the field of bioethics. But for asking these questions, the entire President’s Council was disbanded by the Obama Administration, and publicly mocked by his team: