WASHINGTON -- As he lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research Monday, President Barack Obama proclaimed that scientific decisions now will be made "on facts, not ideology."
This sounds good, but what if there were other nonideological facts that Obama seems to be ignoring? One fact is that since Obama began running for president, researchers have made some rather amazing strides in alternative stem cell research.
Science and ethics finally fell in love, in other words, and Obama seems to have fallen asleep during the kiss. Either that, or he decided that keeping an old political promise was more important than acknowledging new developments. In the process, he missed an opportunity to prove that he is pro-science but also sensitive to the concerns of taxpayers who don't want to pay for research that requires embryo destruction.
Unfortunately, the stem cell debate has been characterized as a conflict between science (as though science is always right) and religious "kooks" (as though religious folk are never right). In choosing sides, it is, indeed, easier to imagine lunch with a researcher who wants to resurrect Christopher Reeve (whom Obama couldn't resist mentioning) and make him walk again, than with the corner protester holding a fetus in a jar.
Moreover, as Obama said, the majority of Americans have reached a consensus that we should pursue this research. Polling confirms as much, but most Americans, including most journalists and politicians, aren't fluent in stem cell research. It's complicated. If people "know" anything, it is that embryonic stem cells can cure diseases and that all stem cells come from fertility clinic embryos that will be discarded anyway. Neither belief is entirely true.
In fact, every single one of the successes in treating patients with stem cells thus far -- for spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, for example -- have involved adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells, not embryonic. And though federal dollars still won't directly fund embryo destruction, federally funded researchers can obtain embryos privately created only for experimentation. Thus, taxpayers now are incentivizing a market for embryo creation and destruction.