On Monday March 9, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by issuing an Executive Order to expand the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).  While the move was expected, it is baffling given the fact that recent advances in the stem cell research field have made ESCR technologically passé.  Just over a year ago scientists were able to come up with a morally benign method of obtaining the biological equivalent of ESCs, called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS).  iPS cells have the advantage over ESCs in that they do not require the destruction of human embryos or cloning to obtain them, the process of creating them is simple and less expensive, they do not face the problem of somatic rejection when used therapeutically, and they promise a limitless supply of pluripotent stem cells (stem cells that can become any of the body’s 220 cells) for scientific research.  Given the recent technological advances in pluripotent stem cell research, deciding to invest additional money in ESCR makes as much sense as deciding to invest money to make better cassette tapes.  Obama’s Executive Order is out-of-date, and unnecessary.

On the positive side, Obama did not try to hype the potential of embryonic stem cells as have many other politicians.  He candidly admitted that “at this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated.  But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. … [I]f we pursue this research, maybe one day – maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime – but maybe one day, others like him [Christopher Reeve] might [be cured via embryonic stem cell therapies].”

On the negative side, however, I find Obama’s reasoning to be malformed.  According to Obama,

[I]n recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering.

The dichotomy between science and morality is not a false one.  The two can conflict at times.  We can debate whether the two conflict in the case of embryonic stem cell research, but it will not do to just declare by fiat that there is no conflict.

Interestingly enough, Obama goes on to speak of his own religious moral values, and how they have affected his decision to expand the funding of ESCR.  What I would like to know is why it’s ok for Obama to make policy based on his religious values, but it was wrong for Bush to do the same?  This is a double-standard.  The fact of the matter is that in principle, there is nothing wrong with drawing on one’s religiously-informed moral values to make public policy.  Policies are based on moral considerations, and our understanding of what’s right and wrong is most often informed by our religious convictions.  In this case, however, we have two men with conflicting moral values.  Bush valued all human life – including embryonic life – whereas Obama only values post-natal life.  Bush valued all human life equally, and thus believed it would be immoral to kill one life to save another.  Obama doesn’t value all life equally, and thus thinks it a moral imperative to kill one life to save another.  Each man has a different ideology, and thus a different policy.  So enough with the talk about Bush choosing “ideology over science.”  He chose morality over science.  Obama, on the other hand, is choosing science over morality (although I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way).