Not many of us would want the federal government to leave military procurement to defense contractors, Medicare reimbursement to doctors or banking regulation to Citigroup. But President Obama says when it comes to allocating federal funds for scientific studies, we should defer to scientists.
That assertion came in reference to research on the use of embryonic stem cells to find treatments for various diseases. Obama announced that he was junking President Bush's rules, which limited federal funding to research using embryonic stem cell lines that existed before August 2001.
"This order," said the president, "is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America" and "protecting free and open inquiry." Harold Varmus, co-chairman of the president's scientific advisory council, said it showed the president would rely on "sound scientific practice … instead of dogma in developing federal policy."
But one person's dogma is another one's ethical imperative or moral principle. Science can tell us how to build a nuclear weapon. But science can't tell us whether we should use it.
Just because research may be useful in combating disease doesn't mean it's ethically acceptable. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment -- in which the federal Public Health Service secretly withheld treatment from infected black men to learn more about the disease -- might have yielded valuable data. But no scientific discovery could possibly have justified it.
Research on embryonic stem cells is controversial because it requires the destruction of live human embryos. Supporters find it easy to minimize the significance of this fact because the embryos are only a few days old -- nothing more than "blastocysts."
But if it's OK to destroy 5-day-old embryos to further scientific inquiry, is it OK to destroy embryos that are five weeks old? Five months? Eight months? Science can't answer that question.
You don't have to be part of the pro-life movement to have qualms about this kind of scientific inquiry. James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin biologist who pioneered the field, has said, "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough." The president's new order suggests we shouldn't think too much.
In 2001, supporters of embryonic stem cell research called on Bush to allow experiments using "surplus" frozen embryos in fertility clinics, arguing that they would be disposed of anyway. But Obama didn't limit his new policy to these fertilized eggs.
On the contrary, he left open the possibility of funding studies using embryos created specifically so their cells can be harvested -- which Congress has barred, but which some advocates would like to allow. The president took no position on whether scientists should be permitted to create embryos for the sole purpose of dismembering them for their stem cells.
He did, however, reject another option. "We will ensure," he said, "that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society, or any society."
Is that a scientific judgment? No, it's a philosophical one, reflecting Obama's moral values. Apparently, the folks in the white lab coats can't be relied on to answer all questions.
But this position is hard to square with his professed approach. On one hand, the president says his policy is "about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion." On the other, he will use coercion to keep them from doing reproductive cloning.
What this mandate means is simple: It may be permissible for scientists to create cloned embryos and kill them. It's not permissible to create cloned embryos and let them live. Their cells may be used for our benefit, but not for their own.
There lies the reality of embryonic stem cell research: It turns incipient human beings into commodities to be exploited for the sake of people who are safely past that defenseless stage of their lives.
It's a change that poses risks not just to days-old human embryos. The rest of us may one day reap important medical benefits from this research. But we may lose something even more vital.
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