Stem Cell Controversy: Science vs Politics

President Barack Obama’s decision to support embryonic stem cell research with federal funds has triggered a confusing yet timely controversy involving science, religion, politics, and ideology. It would not be inaccurate to place the blame for this episode at the doorstep of the George W. Bush administration. Evidence has surfaced in the media indicating the way in which the Bush administration misused scientific research on issues dealing with global warming, and to a minor extent birth control policy and evolution, supposedly to advance its political ideology against environmentally-friendly policies and in favor of sexual abstinence and a neo-creationist view known as Intelligent Design.

But, as it often happens when electoral politics bring about a change in political philosophies and ideologies, the pendulum swings to the opposite end. In his decision to support embryonic stem cell research, President Obama signaled that his administration would reverse the Bush’s “war on science.”  Accordingly, Obama has indicated that his policies will rely on “scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” The president may have further confused the issue by asserting that the controversy falsely involves a “choice between sound science and moral values,” adding that both can coexist.

To make sense of this controversy will require several clarifications and definitions of terms.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Ideology as, “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture” and as “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.” More concretely, a political ideology refers to a set of “half-truths” or un-confirmed truths based on belief and custom and even empirical verification.

It is both the intention and the outcome of all political ideologies to guide the conduct (the moral behavior) of its followers. As such, ideologies prescribe conduct that is deemed to be moral and proscribe behavior considered to be immoral. Therefore, we can safely state that there is a democratic as well as a republican political ideology, each one considering itself the “correct” and more moral position while regarding the other as being less correct, and without indicating it so explicitly, not as moral. In this controversy religion plays a role, on both sides. There are religious people—and likely atheists and agnostics, too—who oppose embryonic stem cell research and who consider their position a moral one. Does that mean that those who are in favor of this type of research, who likely include religious believers, atheists and agnostics, are less moral? Perhaps only according to the standards of those who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

In other words, opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that the embryo is the first manifestation of human life; the first stage that, if allowed, will eventually result in what we are today. Actually, this is no longer a matter of belief; it is a scientific fact, regardless whether it is called embryo, human seed, genetic material, or a one day-old unborn baby. Consequently, destroying life at this level for the sake of improving later stages of human life finds no justification unless one is prepared to make compromises with human life at all stages. By the way, religious belief is not a requirement to arrive at this conclusion. There are humanists (who do not believe in God) who uphold this view on humanitarian/ethical grounds.

Proponents and supporters of embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, also claim that their position is moral. No one will argue that being called, as the president said, “to care for each other and work to ease human suffering,” is not a moral imperative. How can it not be! We can all rest assured that even those who oppose embryonic stem cell research ardently support the president’s very humane position.

Unfortunately, this issue mirrors the abortion controversy in that pro-lifers are not consistent when it comes to argue in favor of lessening human suffering in other aspects of life while pro-choice supporters tend to favor more life outside the womb while paying lip service to unborn-life, and now, dying-life.  As a result, the embryonic stem cell research, just like abortion, is mired in a political and ethical controversy.

But political ideologies, republican and democratic, are not the only proponents of moral behavior; religious beliefs, and atheism, can, may, should, and do propose ethical guidelines in a pluralistic society. The charge that those who oppose embryonic stem cell research do so because of their religious beliefs—as the president seems to have implied–is flawed and frivolous, particularly since there are religious believers, the president included, who support this research.

There is, however, an additional component, one that so far has been left out of the controversy: science. Many are not aware that science, too, may constitute an ideology and, as such, generate its own “morality.” However, the only moral claim the “scientific ideology” can make–‘if it works or if it accomplishes what we want to do, it is good’–is utilitarian in nature and pertains only to the efficacy of its results.

As respectable as science is, and as respectful as educated people should be of science, there is a problem that is often ignored. In their work, scientists follow the very specific and universally accepted rules and techniques embraced by the scientific method. The scientific method, however, cannot prescribe moral behavior since it cannot scientifically confirm one type of moral position as being superior to another. Science cannot prescribe normative or moral behavior, not because it is forbidden by civil law or any higher power, but simply because doing so would contradict the nature—and the rules—of the scientific method. In a way, think of players not being allowed to overrule an umpire or a referee in sports. If players were allowed to do so, the rules would cease to exist and instead there would be chaos. Scientists have long accepted this limitation as one of the main tenets of the philosophy of science.

This means that scientists can become participants in moral/ethical decision-making as members of society but without attributing their moral positions to science. Otherwise, scientists can drive society into moral chaos and in the process corrupt what is among human nature’s greatest achievements. Followers of the “scientific ideology,” (scientists and those of us who “revere” science) must be mindful of this tendency, particularly when conducting human experimentation.

Falsifying or repressing scientific data to support specific policies on political, economic, religious, or non-religious grounds is, from the standpoints of reason and humanity, an abominable practice and should be rightfully condemned by all. Deciding not to conduct or to limit scientific experimentation and research on specific aspects of human life on the basis of political and/or religious considerations, however, is not necessarily anti-science. On the contrary, moral values need and should be discussed and decided upon by the political and religious (including atheists and agnostics) communities, not by science.

Not taking this view into account leads to incomprehensible generalizations such as the assertion made by doctors at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. According to the media, these doctors stated that their decisions “will be made based on science, not religion.” The director of clinical ethics following this view added that, “you can have your belief based on religion, but you can’t impose it on others,” without realizing that what has just taken place is that one imposition (Bush’s) has been substituted for another (Obama’s). All laws impose, and in a pluralistic society all individuals, religious or not, can advance their beliefs and transform them into law. In our society, being religious is no less dignified than being an atheist, a scientist, an artist or a politician.

Likely on account of scientific and technological achievements, as a society we have become more utilitarian and visual than ever before. We have grown to be highly sensitive of babies, teens, grown-ups and healthy elderly people and want to preserve and enhance their well being. Meanwhile, pre-born life and the dying are disappearing from our sensorial screens along with the very poor, collateralized victims of war and the soldiers who fight these wars.

This is the risk that scientists run when they evaluate experimentation and research primarily by the utility of their results. If we allow scientists to pursue their activities without regard to moral considerations, as poets do with their poetic licenses, then we should think twice about how we judged the Nazis when they conducted what they claimed was genuine scientific experimentation with human beings.

It seems inconceivable today that our society would ever consent to such barbarity. Nonetheless, we know that our government has conducted similar experimentation on unwilling victims for military purposes in the past. In addition, medical science, our doctors and researchers, and us, forever potential patients, have immensely benefited from the results of Nazi experimentation. Should we be thankful? Can we be thankful?

The scientific mind is inquisitive by nature. The unknown captivates the scientific mind, and its efforts to discover, to innovate, to invent, and to search for the next breakthrough–particularly when it comes to human life–is as splendid and marvelous as it can be dangerous. Only we as a society can impose the necessary restraints, and the most basic one is the unlimited respect for the dignity of human life in all of its manifestations.

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com