Obama Proposes a Toast

In 1942, C. S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters, advice from a senior “tempter” to a novice about how to confuse us poor mortals, which may be summed up in a single sentence: “Your job is to fuddle them, not to encourage them to think.”

In 1959, Screwtape appears again, in an essay titled, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the senior tempter reflects on the state of the world and on what can be done to make it even worse. Those who listened to President Obama’s Oval Office address on March 9 lifting President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research may be pardoned for thinking the old tempter has returned.

Under Bush, restrictions were placed on federal funding of research using stem cells derived from human embryos after August 10, 2001, the date on which he imposed the ban. But that was all – it was a ban on federal funding of research using those lines. It was not a ban on that research as such, which could still be conducted in any state (e.g., California) which did not ban it, and which could be conducted with state government or private funds. Nor was it a ban on research using pre-August 10 lines (though many of us felt it should have been), or on scientific research using other sources, such as adult stem cells, which pose no ethical concerns.

Far from inhibiting research, as Obama suggested, these restrictions, in the judgment of many observers, spurred scientists to seek ethical alternatives, resulting, a year and a half ago, in spectacular success when different teams of researchers, working independently, found ways to re-engineer adult cells to the embryonic state (these are called “induced pluripotent stem cells”). In other words, scientists can get embryonic stem cells now without destroying embryos. Thus, you would think, there was no need, from any perspective, to force taxpayers to subsidize a practice many find morally repugnant.

Not so, according to Obama. Bush’s policy, he said, created “a false choice between sound science and moral values.” Huh? Western civilization has always insisted there is a choice to be made, but it is not “false.” It is basic. From the Hippocratic Oath to the Nuremburg trials, we have struggled to maintain principles such as that the end does not justify the means, that we may not sacrifice some human beings for the benefit of others, that all human beings are of equal dignity. Science is not a god, but a good, and like every other good, it must be subject to ethical constraints. The Tuskegee experiments, the worldwide embrace of eugenics, and the forced sterilizations conducted in the United States, all of which took place during the twentieth century, should have made this point clear to everyone.

While Obama said he “respected” those of us (more than half of Americans) who feel embryonic stem cell research is morally wrong, whether on theistic, atheistic or non-theistic grounds, what his “respect” amounts to is this: he will force us to fund it.

Obama pledged that his administration would be “open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.” If that was his intention, he got off to a bad start.

For instance, if he wanted, as he said, to be honest with the American people about promising treatments for Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, he should have announced that he was proposing increased funding for already-existing, proven treatments for all of these conditions – that is, research using adult, not embryonic, stem cells. What are we supposed to make of Obama invoking the name and memory of Christopher Reeve to suggest that embryonic stem cell research might help with spinal cord injuries, when it is adult stem cell research that has enabled some with such injuries to walk? (Don’t take my word for it; check out the scientific references at stemcellresearch.org).

Obama assured us his administration would never support the funding of “cloning for human reproduction.” He neglected to mention the obvious corollary – he will support and fund “cloning for research.” In fact, he doesn’t even mention cloning for research. Why? Because while cloning “for reproduction” simply results in a twin being born alive, cloning “for research” necessitates the killing of an embryonic human being, and he has already shown that his administration favors that by rescinding the Bush restrictions.

The facts are simple: human embryos are human beings; deriving stem cells from them kills them; doing so is utterly unethical; other sources for stem cells exist and are proven to help human beings; every kind of successful human cloning produces a living human being (whether in a Petri dish or a womb or a bassinet); the aim of human research cloning is not to produce a twin to walk the earth but a source to be exploited for stem cells through embryo destruction. Yet Obama evades all these facts. He demonizes President Bush, while misleading us about the true results of his own policies.

Like a certain tempter, it appears his aim is to fuddle us. He certainly does not encourage us to think clearly about what he is up to.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.