Reading the Code on Obama's Stem Cell Research Answer

The president acknowledged a moral dimension of the research.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

One of the most dramatic exchanges in last night's White House press conference came on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. What struck me about Obama's response was:

1. He struggled to avoid linking embryonic stem cell research with the "life issue," as antiabortion opponents of embryonic stem cell research do. When the president said he believes it's "very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines when it comes to stem cell research or anything that touches on, you know, the issues of possible cloning or issues related to, you know," he labored for a few uncomfortable moments, appearing to want to avoid saying the word "life." Saying so would have played directly into his opponents' hands. He finally settled on "the human life sciences."

2. Obama acknowledged the moral dilemmas presented by funding of embryonic stem cell research, a nod to the ambivalence that many religious Americans feel about the issue. Some scientists and supporters of the research, by contrast, think funding it is a no-brainer, particularly when it relies on embryos that have already been earmarked for destruction. Many in that crowd think the moral quandaries around the issue have been manufactured by the religious right. When asked if he thought "scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do," Obama was unequivocal: "No."

3. The president obfuscated in explaining what his executive order did, acknowledging only that "what we have said is that for embryos that are typically about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson's or for Alzheimer's or, you know, all sorts of other debilitating diseases—juvenile diabetes—that it is the right thing to do."

What he didn't mention is that his order also left the door open to the government funding more controversial science, including creating embryos for the express purpose of research and cloning through somatic cell nuclear transfer (which is different from human cloning, in the eyes of scientists). Obama's executive order kicked such issues over to the National Institutes of Health, which will craft guidelines that Obama can accept or reject.

4. The president avoided being dogmatic about his support for embryonic stem cell research, saying that if noncontroversial adult stem cell research eventually obviates the need for embryonic research, that would make him happy. "And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that's great," he said. "I have no investment in causing controversy. I'm happy to avoid it, if that's where the science leads us." Again, that sounds reasonable to many Americans who are somewhat torn over the research.

Here's the full exchange from last night:

Jon Ward, Washington Times: In your remarks on stem cell research earlier this month, you talked about a majority consensus in determining whether or not this is the right thing to do, to federally fund embryonic stem cell research. I'm just wondering, though, how much you, personally, wrestled with the morality or ethics of federally funding this kind of research, especially given the fact that science so far has shown a lot of progress with adult stem cells, but not a lot with embryonic.

THE PRESIDENT: Okay. I think it's a legitimate question. I wrestle with these issues every day, as I mentioned to—I think in an interview a couple of days ago. By the time an issue reaches my desk, it's a hard issue. If it was an easy issue, somebody else would have solved it and it wouldn't have reached me.

Look, I believe that it is very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines when it comes to stem cell research or anything that touches on, you know, the issues of possible cloning or issues related to, you know, the human life sciences. I think those issues are all critical, and I've said so before. I wrestle with it on stem cell, I wrestle with it on issues like abortion.

I think that the guidelines that we provided meet that ethical test. What we have said is that for embryos that are typically about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson's or for Alzheimer's or, you know, all sorts of other debilitating diseases—juvenile diabetes—that it is the right thing to do. And that's not just my opinion; that is the opinion of a number of people who are also against abortion.

Now, I am glad to see progress is being made in adult stem cells. And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that's great. I have—I have no investment in causing controversy. I'm happy to avoid it, if that's where the science leads us. But what I don't want to do is predetermine this based on a very rigid, ideological approach, and that's what I think is reflected in the executive order that I signed.

Jon Ward, Washington Times: I meant to ask a follow-up, though. Do you think that scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I think there's always an ethical and a moral element that has to be—be a part of this. And so as I said, I don't take decisions like this lightly. They're ones that I take seriously. And I respect people who have different opinions on this issue. But I think that this was the right thing to do and the ethical thing to do. And as I said before, my hope is, is that we can find a mechanism ultimately to cure these diseases in a way that gains 100 percent consensus. And we certainly haven't achieved that yet, but I think on balance this was the right step to take.

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