With a great deal of fanfare, President Obama signed an executive order on stem cell research last week. The most controversial element of his new directive is a short, harmless-looking clause that you probably haven’t heard about. People on all sides of the stem cell controversy should call this particular decision what it is: A disgrace.
Last August—back when President Obama was still just Senator Obama—I wrote a column with a very similar title to this one, detailing a series of indefensible votes Obama cast as an Illinois state senator. At issue was the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, a piece of legislation designed to affirm the full human rights of babies who managed to survive abortions. In short, Obama voted repeatedly against the provision, and then offered a string of evolving, profoundly dishonest excuses for those votes. This episode worried pro-lifers, many of whom correctly concluded that despite his conciliatory rhetoric and overtures to voters on both sides of the issue, Obama would actually govern as the most pro-abortion president in history. They were right.
When Obama reversed the Bush-era policy on embryonic stem cell research funding on Monday, he was flanked by a bevy of smiling activists and legislators who burst into applause when he attached his signature to the order. Like many Americans, the group assembled at the White House seemed to genuinely believe Obama’s act would open research avenues that could help find a cure to devastating diseases. Who can blame them? For years, Democrats portrayed the previous policy as a triumph of narrow-minded religious dogma imposed by zealots who would rather see human suffering continue than surrender an inch on ideology.
Of course, the reality was much more complicated. President Bush’s 2001 executive order did not “ban” embryonic stem cell research, as much of the public believes. He simply ensured that the privately funded destruction of new human embryos—nascent human life—would not be encouraged by the promise of taxpayer dollars for future research. In other words, embryonic stem cell research could continue, but the government stopped short of providing cash incentives for an unproven practice that many taxpayers believed to be morally abhorrent. Obama’s order ends that paradigm. Now researchers who engage in this specific form of stem cell research will be handsomely rewarded with federal funds. (Direct taxpayer funding of embryo destruction is explicitly banned by the 1995 Dickey Amendment, so the new policy allows the government to subsidize the practice while outsourcing the dirty work to private entities).
Perhaps you agree with this new policy. Most Americans, including some who are generally anti-abortion, believe embryonic stem cell research represents a gray area with a lot of potential scientific upside. Many are also willing to allow some tax dollars to further research in this vein. It’s a complicated, difficult issue on which reasonable people can express honest disagreements.
Obama, as he is inclined to do, tried to have it both ways at the signing ceremony. He first acknowledged that, “Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. And I understand their views, and I believe we must respect their point of view.”
Mere seconds later, he assailed the previous administration for crafting policy that, well, understood and truly respected the views of those aforementioned “thoughtful and decent” people. Obama congratulated his administration for having the sophistication to ensure that scientific decisions are “based on facts, not ideology.” Remember that phrase.
Obama’s “uniter” persona also assured Americans that he’d continue to support “promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking research to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.” This research has proven extraordinarily promising, especially after a dramatic breakthrough in 2007: Scientists in Japan and the US discovered they could engineer human skin cells to mimic embryonic stem cell. This could allow the scientific community to probe the benefits of these cells without actually destroying human embryos. To some, this development rendered the controversy moot, and vindicated President Bush’s moral and ethical caution. At the very least, it was an enormous scientific step forward that all observers could unabashedly celebrate.
For this reason, the previous administration—you know, the divisive ideologues who hated science—issued executive order 13435 in 2007 that directed federal funding toward alternative, non-controversial human pluripotent stem cell research. Although some critics argued this action didn’t go far enough, and that further embryonic stem cell research should also be funded, no one could legitimately oppose the funding of this universally welcomed breakthrough.
That brings us to the nasty, gratuitous, and nearly entirely unpublicized action President Obama took amidst the hoopla of overturning Bush’s policies. Right after he told the country he supported for alternative, non-destructive stem cell research, Obama signed the actual order. Buried at the very bottom of the document was this line: “Executive Order 13435…is revoked.” That’s right, he abolished President Bush’s funding for the type of stem cell research upon which everyone could agree. Just like that.
In my August 2008 column, I speculated as to why then-State Senator Obama had repeatedly opposed no-brainer, pro-life legislation that passed the US Congress without a single dissenting vote. I wrote, “[One] possibility is that Obama’s a hyper-partisan ideologue. The driving forces behind the Born Alive Infant Protection Act were pro-life groups that generally support Republicans. Perhaps Obama’s fierce partisanship and leftist ideology were simply too strong for him to stomach handing any conservative group a political victory. If this is the case, his vote was petty and appallingly callous. It also would entirely undermine the overarching message of his famous 2004 DNC speech in which he decried blue vs. red state polarization and embraced America in with a big, royal purple hug of bipartisanship and inclusion.”
In the face of yet another grotesque Obama policy decision on the issue of life, famed bioethicist Wesley J. Smith pondered a similar question. On his blog, he wondered why on earth Obama would take the totally unnecessary action he did in undoing excutive order 13435. Smith’s conclusion: “I can think of only two reasons for this action…First, vindictiveness against all things "Bush" or policies considered by the Left to be "pro life;" and second, a desire to get the public to see unborn human life as a mere corn crop ripe for the harvest. So much for taking the politics out of science.”
This decision by the president is hypocritical in the extreme, and demonstrates that Obama’s language about respect, inclusion, and unity are, in fact, just words. Regardless of one’s feelings on the separate issue of embryonic stem cell research, this narrow element of his executive order is an outrage, and “thoughtful and decent” people of all ideological backgrounds should urge the White House to follow the president’s own rhetoric by rejecting the imposition of leftist ideology at the expense good science.
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