Inconvenient Facts About Stem-Cell Research

Understanding Judge Royce Lamberth's recent decision


When he announced his policy expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, President Barack Obama was not timid about proclaiming its benefits. It would, he announced, hasten "a day when words like 'terminal' and 'incurable' are finally retired from our vocabulary."

You thought Obama wanted to establish death panels? Actually, he seems to think he can confer immortality.

That announcement, made in March of last year, dismantled the limits imposed by the Bush administration. The change, in Obama's view, was a triumph over ignorance and ideology.

His executive order was, the president claimed, "about protecting free and open inquiry" and letting scientists "do their jobs, free from manipulation and coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient." When science wins, he led us to believe, we all win.

Conspicuously absent from those declarations were facts that Obama would prefer to omit because they are—well, inconvenient. But those facts did not elude U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who on Monday said the revised policy violates federal law.

What facts? A restriction approved by Congress in 1996, and repeatedly renewed, says federal money may not be used for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed." But the point of Obama's new policy was to pay for experiments using stem cells harvested from embryos that are killed in the process.

The administration evaded the ban by stipulating that Washington could fund such research as long as it didn't fund the part where the fetus is terminated. Judge Lamberth was not buying.

Embryonic stem cell research, he noted, requires the destruction of embryos. The federal prohibition, he said, "encompasses all 'research in which' an embryo is destroyed, not just the 'piece of research' in which the embryo is destroyed." So any funding of experiments using such stem cells is forbidden.

Obama imagines that this research may make the word "terminal" obsolete—except, of course, when applied to the embryos that perish when their stem cells are taken for scientific inquiry.

President George W. Bush's policy allowed research only on stem cell lines that had already been established. The idea was to facilitate studies without creating incentives to destroy additional embryos. Obama, by contrast, took the view that the destruction of additional embryos (those "left over" at fertility clinics) is essential to the march of science.

What's wrong with destroying a 5-day-old embryo that would be discarded anyway? Nothing, unless you think there is something wrong with killing a human embryo ostensibly for some greater good.

If there is nothing wrong with that, though, it's hard to see what's wrong with destroying an embryo that is 5 weeks old or 5 months old, if its tissue could be used to help people who are seriously ill. In that case, why limit research to leftover embryos? It would make more sense to let scientists create embryos and let them gestate for months, for the sole purpose of destroying them for their stem cells.

Americans might bridle at that prospect, but proponents of expanded embryonic stem cell research have spared them from the contemplation of such unpleasantness. Their campaign focuses on ends, not means—alleviating suffering, conquering disease, letting the blind see and the lame walk.

Such advances are only speculative at this point. But their allure is such as to discourage us from looking too closely at the methods needed to bring them about. It's easier to think in terms of excising tissue from blastocysts than in terms of killing human embryos. In reality, they are the same thing.

The problem with embryonic stem cell research is that the goals are so desirable that they override our usual moral impulses. Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, wrote in 2006 in The New Atlantis, "It is very hard for us to describe something higher than health, or more important than the relief of suffering, so when relief comes at a cost, even the cost of cherished principles or self-evident truths, we all too often pay up."

The court decision against Obama's policy on stem cell research is a rare exception, which may induce us to reconsider the wisdom of what we have sanctioned. "Our problem is not that we are lacking in ethical principles," says Levin, "but rather that we are forgetful of them."