The scientists’ presidentMichael Sean Winters
- 24 January 2009
President Barack Obama is the repository of many hopes as he begins his tenure, and some of those hopes are very specific. Few people are more hopeful, and more specific in their hopefulness, than those on the left who care primarily about bioethical issues and who believe that George W. Bush's eight years in office have been a kind of war on science. Conversely, the howls on the Right have already begun.
At the end of Mass on Sunday, the priest instructed us about the need to send cards to our legislators about FOCA - the Freedom of Choice Act. This bill would repeal all state-level restrictions on abortion and Mr Obama once told a group of abortion-rights activists that he would sign it if he became President. Republican Party operatives used Mr Obama's quote to scare American bishops into thinking that if Mr Obama won, the passage of FOCA would be a foregone conclusion. It won't.
In fact, the bill will never come to a vote in Congress because the Democratic majority in both chambers rests on the ability to re-elect pro-life Democrats in swing districts: passage of FOCA might cost those conservative Democrats their seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is ardently pro-choice, but she is even more ardently intent on remaining Speaker. She will make sure that FOCA never comes to a vote.
Mr Obama is sure to revoke the policy announced at a United Nations conference held in Mexico City in 1984 which prevents federally funded agencies from providing or promoting abortion. President Ronald Reagan first enacted it by executive order. In 1993, President Bill Clinton revoked it, and then George W. Bush re-instated it. Mr Obama was expected to sign the reversal this week.
The Obama administration's stance on abortion policy is relatively predictable. However, its position on other bioethical issues - in particular that of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research - is becoming more nuanced. It is no longer clear if Mr Obama will lift the ban on such funding by executive fiat as many anticipated. In an interview last week, he indicated that he would prefer a legislative solution, saying: "But I like the idea of the American people's representatives expressing their views on an issue like this."
Some liberals note that Mr Obama has spent what they perceive as too much time reaching out to conservatives. "At this rate he will end up irritating all of his core supporters," was a typical comment posted at the website Politico.com. "Time to take some stands and get some things done. Enough is enough."
Mr Obama's move may be smart politics, because the issue divides both parties. There are pro-life Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch, who strongly support embryonic stem-cell research. And there are newly elected conservative Democrats who can demonstrate their independence from the party by voting against lifting the ban. Best of all for Mr Obama, pitching the issue to Congress allows him to remain focused on the economy. Still, if Congress passes legislation permitting federal funds for the research, there is no doubt that Mr Obama will sign it.
The ban on federal funding for stem-cell research was imposed by President George W. Bush in August 2001. Mr Bush cited ethical concerns shared by many, including Catholics, to limit embryonic stem-cell research to existing stem-cell lines - that is, lines from embryos that had already been destroyed. Since then, major advances have occurred using adult stem cells which do not involve destroying an embryo, so the funding debate has lost some of its urgency. But it remains oddly potent: both Mr Obama and his election opponent Senator John McCain opposed the Bush policy. Even more sadly, the debate has lost none of its stridency and every actor in the saga remains saddled with a dogmatism that promises neither compromise nor coherence.
It is difficult to argue with the emotions of those who suffer from degenerative diseases of the type that might find some amelioration through stem-cell research. My mother suffered from Parkinson's disease for more than 20 years and there was no telling her the research was ethically impermissible. Nancy Reagan supports such research after watching her husband decline into the darkness of Alzheimer's. Arguing about the abstract consequences of the research is no match for such strong emotional appeals, especially when the dangers are remote and the benefits are touted as near.
The Catholic bishops will try to articulate a consistent ethic of life that should proscribe such research. But their arguments fail to persuade because most Americans do not share their philosophic premisses. The fast-paced media culture is driven by sound bites, not by syllogisms. The bishops speak as if there is no difference between a zygote and a person, and while Catholic prelates may see all the potential of life that exists in a zygote and correctly insist that it is worthy of respect, their arguments rooted in Aristotelian metaphysics do not even get a hearing in the culture. If my neighbour cuts down my oak tree, I can sue him. If he steals an acorn, I can't. Your average Catholic in the pew listens to the priest invoke Humanae Vitae and turns a deaf ear. And they never studied metaphysics.
Lifting the ban on funding will be pushed also by those who stand to gain financially from the federal funding: the pharmaceutical industry and university community that want the cash. The pharmaceutical industry gave heavily to Mr Obama, mostly to ensure a seat at the table if he won. But the idea that Mr Obama will kowtow to an industry that gave him $1.6 million when he raised over $750 million is absurd.
The corruption to which Mr Obama is susceptible is not financial but intellectual. The Left in America objected loudly to Mr Bush's restrictive stem-cell policy. After Mr Bush vetoed a 2007 bill to lift the restrictions, Senator Hillary Clinton said: "This is just one example of how the President puts ideology before science." Al Gore wrote a tome The Assault on Reason that was more careful than Mrs Clinton's assertion but fed the left-wing narrative that science should thrive unfettered.
Advocates of stem-cell research celebrated Mr Obama's victory for what it portends. "Hallelujah - at last!" scientist Robert Lanza exulted in the online magazine New Scientist.com after the election. "This represents the end of a sad chapter in American scientific history."
Science, in fact, has not been suffering a bad chapter and the fact that some scientists have had to look elsewhere for funding is hardly the hardship they claim. The liberal fascination with eugenics in the early decades of the twentieth century produced a bad chapter in the history of science, when mentally disabled individuals were sterilised against their will. Dr Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz were a bad chapter in the history of science, when ethics were thrown out the window so evil could come in through the door.
The lessons learnt from those ethical shortfalls have been lost on today's liberals. Any attempt to set humane limits on scientific research is considered suspect, a medieval intrusion of religion where it does not belong, an assault on reason. You may agree or disagree with the way the Bush administration subjected science policy to political policy, but the effort is not objectionable per se.
The Left did take issue with one set of recent scientific researches. In 1994, Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, published The Bell Curve, which posited that there was a racial component to intelligence. Most of the criticism, however, objected to the interpretation of the data, not to its purported significance. It was literary editor Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic who pointed out the real problem with The Bell Curve, writing: "There is not a chart in the world that can demonstrate the place of charts in the world."
Philosophy can never be dispensed. The role of race in society, like the role of stem-cell research, is a philosophic question first. Raising questions about the ethical conundrums posed by stem-cell research is an embrace of reason, not an assault upon it. Scientism cannot escape the human and humane questions posed by philosophy.
Nothing in Mr Obama's educational or political background suggests he might be alert to the dangers posed by the new scientism. "We need to end the Bush administration's war on science where ideology trumps scientific inquiry and politics replaces expert opinion," Mr Obama's campaign website states. Twenty-two of the 35 top-level appointments so far have gone to candidates with degrees from elite schools where the education is entirely secular and philosophically myopic: Harvard's philosophy course offerings jump from Aristotle to Descartes, leaving out Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bellarmine. I doubt that anyone in Mr Obama's circle of advisers will raise Wieseltier's point about charts and the necessity of philosophy. Maybe, to ensure a seat at the table, there needs to be some financial backing: Metaphysicians for Obama. How much will they raise?