Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama, Bush, Science and Politics

Robert P. George and Eric Cohen have an interesting take on Obama's reversal of Bush's stem cell policy. George and Cohen argue that Obama's announcement that he is "taking politics out of science" is misleading because:
[T]he Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos.
That politicians engage in politics -- even as they claim to decry politics -- should not come as a shock to most people. So, I agree that Obama's reversal of Bush's policy and the language he used to describe the decision were both political.

But one could say the same thing of Bush's position. While Obama undoubtedly responded to members of his liberal base, Bush catered to members of his conservative base who oppose abortion. For better or worse, the stem-cell controversy implicates the same political conflict as the abortion debate. All sides on these issues can disclaim politics and rest their views on science or ethics. But when presidents make policy or respond to vocal and organized constituents, these matters inevitably become part of political discourse and conflict.

George and Cohen, however, portray Bush's policy as a politically neutral effort to balance science and ethics:
Mr. Obama's executive order overturned an attempt by President George W. Bush in 2001 to do justice to both the promise of stem-cell science and the demands of ethics. The Bush policy was to allow the government to fund research on existing embryonic stem-cell lines, where the embryos in question had already been destroyed. But it would not fund, or in any way incentivize, the ongoing destruction of human embryos.
Bush's policy can be understood as balancing science and ethics -- but it also responded to the demands and ideology of his constituents. This description applies to Obama's approach as well.

13 comments:

Mark G said...

What the President has done (and Bush did not do) is pretend that his political policy choice is somehow neutral, based simply on accepting the findings of "science." This posture would make sense if Bush had ordered the teaching of creationism in public schools, and President Obama had reversed that order. But it is obviously appropriate for our political institutions to enact limits on the things scientists are allowed to do, even if those things may be scientifically productive. I do not think I'm an anti-science know-nothing just becuase I think there should be laws prohibiting scientists from performing torturous experiments on chimpanzees, even if those experiments would advance science and potentially cure cancer.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

If Bush so brazenly accepted the politics -- which its hard to deny, given that he stripped members of a bioethics board and replaced them with diehard antichoice individuals -- then didn't he helped generate a lot of the liberal criticism against him?

Mark G said...

I think we are talking past each other. I see nothing wrong in principle with President Obama packing his boards and committees with pro-choice people; Bush doing the opposite is no different. By doing so, both were appropriately trying to translate the "will of the people" as reflected in the results of the last election to areas where the government interfaces with science. Again, it seems to me the only legitimate gripe is where the politicians try to pressure scientists to bend the results of their research to fit the politicians' goals or dogmas. Some R's accuse the President's new team of doing this on global warming. I'm not a good enough scientist to know whether the criticism is valid.

Mark G said...

To respond to Darren more directly -- Of course pro-choice people could complain when Bush appointed pro-lifers. (I say the pro-lifers have as much right to gripe when Obama appoints pro-choicers. That's politics.) But the pro-choicers' complaint is that Bush's policy unfairly restricted abortion, not that it somehow kept scientists from doing their job.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the statement that Bush was catering to his conservative base on the issue of embryonic stem cells. Many of the conservative base agreed with the decision, as I did, many others did not. Also, except for the haters, I don't know too many who claim Bush was anything other than sincere in his beliefs and decisions with respect to embryonic stem cell research. I believe his decisions were based on the best available evidence and advice and were moderate in their scope and affect.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Infidel753 said...

Most scientists working in the field say that those other methods of creating stem cells are not, in fact, as promising in their potential as actual embryonic stem cells are. The people I see claiming that they are equally promising are columnists, bloggers, politicians, and other people with an ideological agenda -- not working stem-cell scientists.

Embryonic stem cells are harvested from excess embryos created as a by-product of other processes such as in-vitro fertilization -- that is, they are harvested from embryos which would be discarded anyway. They are not taken from embryos which would otherwise develop into people. Embryos at that stage have no brain or nervous system (or any other organs), so the situation is in no way comparable to experimenting on chimpanzees, who have near-human levels of consciousness, emotion, and pain sensitivity.

Finally, Bush's policy banned funding of scientists doing certain kinds of research, on the basis of a religious taboo. Obama's policy merely removes that restriction and makes funding available. Regardless of which position you consider ethically correct, it is untrue that the second policy represents interference in science in the sense that the first one did.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Mark - I am not sure that the "will of the people" is antiabortion. Opinion polls show that a majority of the public is pro-life. People vote for many different reasons. But I accept your point that both sides appoint advisors who share their opinions. But this simply confirms my original argument that Bush played politics as well. The only distinction I see here is that you say Bush never said he was deemphasizing politics. I have not researched that position to contest it, but I will not dispute it because I do not see it as a very important distinction.

Also, I was referring to Bush placing very strident antichoice people on his bioethics team. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit wrote about this some time ago. I posted the link - but here it is again: Glenn on George

Doug: there are always people in a "base" that disagree with a position. I disagree with Obama on many issues, even when he is catering to a liberal base (usually because I don't think he goes far enough). And politicians can be sincere about an issue even if they choose to act on it in part out of politics. This is why I emphasized in the main essay the relevance of 3 factors: science, ethics and politics. I think they all influenced both Obama and Bush. This does not diminish the sincerity of their own personal views on the subject.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Infidel - I agree that embryos from in-vitro fertilization could be used. The antiabortion community does not loudly protest (if at all) selective reduction - or the process in which women subject to in-vitro fertilization abort excessive embryos (say having one kid instead of eight).

Other embryos from this process are discarded without implantation. Also, unused embryos cannot be used by others without the consent of the biological parents. So they either sit in freezers or get discarded.

Using these embryos seems like a good compromise position too. Of course, I am pro-choice. I suspect that others who see Bush's "compromise" as a moderate and relatively apolitical position are pro-life.

Anonymous said...

I am not pro-life, though as I grow older, I get closer and closer to that position. Also, my understanding is that the science is inconclusive about the best stem cells to start with. Recent advances have been with non-embryonic lines. Embryonic stem cells pose other problems, like unwanted growth, tumors, etc. I am no expert on this, and only know what I read, but the lack of direct evidence of near-field advances with embryonic stem cells, combined with the other stem cell lines available and the advances made with them was one of the primary arguments advanced by President Bush when he anounced his decision. I don't believe the state of research has changed substantially since that time.

I could envision scenarios whereby I would change my mind and support embryonic stem cell research, but I have seen nothing to convince me that we must proceed.

One last point, I believe the only thing Bush did was block federal funding on embryonic lines.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Infidel753 said...

More on the potential of embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells:

http://health.msn.com/health-topics/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100234420&GT1=31036#

That article is, however, too pessimistic about the time frame for use of such treatments on humans. Human testing of an embryonic-stem-cell-based treatment for macular degeneration is about to start in Britain:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5576335.ece

Of course, while progress in the United States was being obstructed by this medieval nonsense, scientists in other advanced nations went on working. But there is no doubt that keeping the country with the biggest and best-funded medical research establishment out of the game for eight years has meant that many cures and treatments will arrive several years later than they otherise would have.

Bush's stem-cell restrictions were by far his most evil act. Their ultimate cost will certainly include much more unnecessary human suffering and death than, say, the Iraq war.

Anonymous said...

"medieval", "evil", "unnecessary human suffering", "death".

I wonder how persuassive those terms are?

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Infidel753 said...

The last two of those terms are entirely accurate. the first two are, therefore, entirely justified.

Anonymous said...

Infidel - accurate is certainly a subjective definition for you. I've read both articles you've linked but the first made no mention of cord blood. Also, Embryonic stem cells becoming any cell as far as I know is still just a theory. You are comparing only adult vs. embryonic when there is a third option.

I don't have a stance on whether I'm pro or against but the open-ended ethics left to congress seems rather silly for a president who made it such an important issue (no mention of cloning which I am absolutely against). This could have been a good step (and still may be) for science but as normal, a politician seemed to turn it into a mess.

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