Cellular Division

Peter Wood

On Monday, March 9, President Barack Obama lifted most of the restrictions that President George W. Bush had put on the use of federal funding to support embryonic stem cell research.  President Bush’s policy, announced in August 2001 had limited federally-funded researchers to using 21 stem cell lines created before his announcement. 

President Obama, in signing his new executive order, declared, "Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values."  He added that his new policy, “is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,"

The President’s decision has been welcomed by some in the scholarly community and decried by others.  The National Association of Scholars endorses no particular position, but we seek to advance reasoned and constructive debate within the scholarly community.  To this end we have invited numerous medical researchers, biologists, ethicists, philosophers, economists, and scholars in other fields to give us their short assessments of the new policy.  Here we post the first five comments.  We will update this post as other comments come in. 

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Maureen L. Condic

Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy

School of Medicine, University of Utah

The decision of President Obama to reverse the Bush embryonic stem cell policy has been inaccurately portrayed as a triumph of science over ideology.  Dr. Harold Varmus, former director of the NIH, has stated that Obama’s policy "is consistent with the president's determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy" (Washington Post, 9 March 2009), yet nothing could be farther from the truth.  In this policy, President Obama appears to ignore both the serious ethical issues raised by this research as well as the scientific breakthroughs that have occurred over the last two years.  As another former head of the NIH, Dr. Bernadine Healy, has recently noted, advances in direct reprogramming of adult cells to generate “induced pluripotent stem,” or iPS cells, have made embryonic stem cells “obsolete” (US News and World Report, 4 March 2009).  Indeed, many of the world’s leading stem cell scientists have dramatically refocused their efforts on the more promising field of iPS cell research, with over 800 new labs entering this field in the last year (Chicago Tribune, 9 October 2008).  It is hard to see how anyone could characterize Obama’s scientifically outdated and highly political embryonic stem cell policy as informed by “evidence, instead of dogma.”


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Michael Shermer

Adjunct Professor of Economics

Claremont Graduate University

Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American

The potential for stem cells in the application to medical problems is of such substantial import that I must applaud President Obama's announcement to lift the restrictions on stem cell research. Breakthroughs were going to happen anyway somewhere in the world where science enjoys freedom, so it might as well be here in America, the greatest scientific and technological society in history.

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Paul Gross

Professor Emeritus, History of Science

University of Virginia


The government’s decision to allow funding and other support of stem cell research is correct. The government’s self-congratulation on its “restoration of scientific integrity” is political piffle.

The reason for the prior ban on such support was political-religious. The religious right is a large block of voters residing, often uneasily, within the big Republican tent. It is joined, from time to time, by a very much smaller, but sometimes influential, conservative group (some of them called “neo-conservatives” who are not ordinarily impassioned on all the issues that keep the religious right jumping -- abortion, for example. But they do share with the fundamentalists a certain conviction on the hubris of science and the mortal danger of secularism. The Republican party cannot ignore the fundamentalist Christians, anyway, and for the latter, stem cell research – some but not all of which requires embryonic stem cells – is anathema. Why? Because the embryos (actually, they are not really “embryos” yet, just blastocysts at latest) from which the stem cells are harvested are obtained in the course of in vitro fertilization of ova from a potential mother. More such are produced than can be used. The argument against this is another “slippery slope” push on the abortion panic button.

But stem cells, embryonic or innocuously otherwise, from body cells — and the latter are increasingly likely to replace embryonic stem cells -- are immensely promising for use in learning the nature of, and in perhaps curing, some of the most intractable problems of human disease and injury – from pruritus to Parkinsonism and beyond. That is not to mention the solution of pressing problems in basic developmental biology. There are already some signal successes in both. This is a case in which the religious preoccupations of a subset of the population should not prevent research and development of clear potential benefit to the population as a whole.

On the other hand, the new administration’s posturing on its supposedly valiant restoration of scientific integrity deserves a laugh. Both parties have long records of pandering, on scientific questions, to political power within their constituencies. Science is too big and vastly too expensive for things to be otherwise. Republicans have generally pandered to the religious right on matters connected with abortion and on official respect for faith.  Democrats have pandered to certain popular environmental activisms – as opposed to genuine concerns with real environmental problems, and to various schools of thought on K-12 education, the purpose of which is not to address real problems, such as the infamous “achievement gap” but to argue that they don’t exist or are artifacts of social inequities.

Politics always wins, even over good science, because for most people, only politics and sports are interesting enough to justify learning all the slogans.

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Patrick Lee

McAleer Professor of Bioethics           

Director, Institute of Bioethics

Franciscan University of Steubenville


Obama claims he wants to be clear “about the science behind our decisions.”  This is empty—no, mendacious—rhetoric.  Science shows us that what is killed in the embryonic stem cell research his executive order will now promote is a human being at the early stage of his or her development.  Just as you and I once were adolescents, and once were infants, so we also once were fetuses and before that embryos. 


So, Obama’s actions—and this is a particularly serious member of a large set of anti-life acts—are certainly not based on science.  Rather, his anti-life agenda either ignores science, or explicitly denies that every human being has a fundamental equal worth and dignity.  Human beings are equal only in the basic kind of being they are, namely, individuals with a nature enabling them to develop themselves to the point where they will shape their lives, even if they happen to be deprived, by sickness or immaturity, of the ability to do so right now.  But today Obama’s action sends the message that what makes human beings valuable is not the basic kind of being they are; rather, that instead, to be valuable and immune from assault, human beings must possess certain additional  characteristics—and  which ones will be subject to arbitrary decision.  

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Christopher Tollefsen

Professor of Philosophy

University of South Carolina


I am very disheartened both by President Obama's decision, and by the rhetoric surrounding it.  The scientific fact is that an embryo is a living human being, a member of the species Homo sapiens.  The moral fact is that a decision has been reached to sacrifice the lives of some human beings in order to further the interests of other human beings.  And the political fact is that in the name of keeping science "free" from political ideology, these truths of science and morality have been obscured, concealed, denied and ignored.


Having gone down this road it will be increasingly difficult for the US to extricate itself from the pervasive immorality of embryo-destructive research. But it needs to be recognized that this research constitutes not just a grave injustice to the lives of the perhaps millions of embryonic human beings who will be sacrificed, but also to the millions of citizens who oppose such research precisely because of its substantive injustice.  For the federal government to get involved in such research implicates these dissenting citizens in ways that are deeply problematic in any democratic state; it is thus a profoundly disrespectful decision.


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Lawrence S. Lerner
Professor Emeritus
College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics
California State University, Long Beach

All of the arguments against embryonic stem cell research boil down to the belief, on the part of their proponents, that human conception involves the combination of three rather than two entities. The two that anyone can observe are, of course, the ovum provided by the woman and the sperm provided by the man. The third is unobservable in principle as well as practice. But it is nevertheless fervently believed in by those who find it essential to the process of conception that a supernatural entity, sometimes called the Holy Spirit, provides a soul.


Needless to say, we must respect the opinions of those who so believe. But it makes no sense to impose that belief on the many others who do not share in it, and who moreover are well aware of the benefits that human embryonic stem cell research can yield to both human knowledge and the health of those afflicted with many diseases. And it makes even less sense to burden humanity at large with the penalties of not engaging in the research.


Let the believers eschew those benefits and embrace the penalties, but let them not interdict the benefits to nonbelievers. And let them not delude themselves and others that their real motivation lies in the hope that other kinds of cells can fill all the possible functions of human embryonic stem cells. (12 March 2009) 

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*New Comment*

Timothy Sean Quinn


Professor of Philosophy

Xavier University

Obama offers three justifications for the new policy. First, the United States must be a leader in stem cell research in order to preserve our technological advantage and to be able to influence the direction of future research. This argument—from expediency, more or less—has some validity; should the U.S. abstain from engagement in this research, foreign governments with less savory agendas could be able to proceed unfettered. His second reason is that scientific research humanitarian goal; stem cell research promises hitherto unimaginable medical benefits. This argument, familiar from the writings of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, is highly problematic: simply, it treats the human condition as a disease which science alone can alleviate. Obama’s statement suggests science on behalf of improving the human condition is compatible with religion, in support of which view he insists upon the need for proper guidelines for determining both research methods and goals, and upon removing human cloning from the menu of research avenues. All well and good, except for the uncritical acceptance that mortality is a categorical evil—a judgment that pits science directly against revealed religion, and also needs considerably more reflection on human nature to be persuasive. Finally, Obama cites freedom of inquiry as a motivation for pursuing this research. Here, he makes his by now famous assault on Bush policy, suggesting governmental coercion and manipulation of scientists for political ends. By contrast, we need free and open inquiry, “even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.” One wonders what is this “inconvenient truth” about stem cell research? That it is in fact a violation of Biblical morality? That it compromises the Declaration’s notion of natural rights by compromising our understanding of what is naturally human? That science is morally neutral even while it promises a humanitarian goal? That would be an inconvenient truth indeed, one which manifests the principle ambiguities—and therewith the dangers—of the President’s recent announcement. 

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