During his inaugural address, President Obama pledged to "restore science to its rightful place." The comment was interpreted at the time as a not-so-subtle jab at his predecessor's policy approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), and in March 2009 Mr. Obama confirmed this interpretation with an executive order overturning restrictions on federally-funded ESCR put in place by former-President Bush. But not everyone agrees with the President's vision of science's "rightful place," particularly when his pursuit of this vision involves undermining the rule of law and disregarding the sanctity of human life. Not surprisingly, therefore, the President's executive order was challenged in court, and this week, opponents of ESCR have a reason to celebrate. On August 23, 2010, federal Judge Royce Lamberth issued a temporary injunction against the President's order after concluding that it violates the plain language of the current federal law banning taxpayer funding of the destruction of human embryos for research purposes.
In predictable hyperbolic fashion, critics of judge Lamberth's decision enjoining President Obama's executive order on ESCR are declaring that "the sky is falling." According to Sean Tipton at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the injunction "blocks important research on how to unlock the enormous potential of human embryonic stem cells," and "will be incredibly disruptive and once again drive the best scientific minds into work less likely to yield treatments for conditions from diabetes to spinal cord injury."
Mr. Tipton ignores that fact that Mr. Obama's executive order flies in the face of a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which has been in place since 1996 and which prohibits federal funding of research involving the creation or destruction of human embryos. This law went into effect because a majority of members of Congress rejected the "ends justifies the means" approach advocated by Mr. Tipton and others like him – people who are willing to throw off any ethical restraints in pursuit of so-called scientific endeavor. A proponent of the utilitarian "science without limits" approach to scientific investigation, the newly minted President tried to do an end run around the unambiguous law by redefining the word "research" to mean something other than its plain meaning and then authorizing this "research" by an executive order.
The Obama administration, of course, wasted no time in announcing its plans to appeal the ruling.
President Obama and his supporters in the scientific community argue that any impediment to ESCR is necessarily an impediment to the fight against terrible diseases and medical conditions. The potential of ESCR, they insist, is limitless and unprecedented. Failure to pursue this technology vigorously, then, would be to condemn countless individuals to needless suffering and death. Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes immediately apparent that this position is not one based upon any kind of scientific evidence, but rather upon an ideological conviction that views the pursuit of scientific knowledge as a sacrosanct endeavor that should not be made subject to pedestrian ethical or moral constraints of any kind, period.
Is this the philosophy of science that President Obama had in mind when he spoke of science's "proper place?" Is this why his executive order discontinued funding for alternatives to ESCR, alternatives that have proven more successful than the embryonic approach without any of the ethical controversy? Is this why he felt justified in manipulating the power of his office to override standing federal law? It's clear from the president's words and actions on this issue that the answer to all of the above is a resounding "yes."
Unfortunately for Mr. Obama and his boutique constituency of scientific "experts," the American people have very strong views when it comes to issues dealing with the sanctity of human life, be it ESCR or abortion or euthanasia. And, thankfully, there are still some members of the Judiciary who have very strong views when it comes to abuse of executive authority. These two factors, when combined, are likely to prove difficult to overcome, even for someone of Obama's notable political gifts. He just might have gotten away with it if it weren't for that pesky judge! Kudos to Judge Lamberth for exposing the President's executive order for what it really is: a thinly-veiled, ideologically motivated attempt at an end run around the Constitution.