The debate over research on embryonic stem cells has been heated and often vitriolic. President Obama’s move to reverse government stem cell limits has, as might be expected, reignited the debate. Yet however much we may disagree on the morality of using stem cells for research or clinical purposes, everyone would do well to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between ethics and science. That difference has been systematically obscured by the widespread argument of research proponents that opposition to the research is opposition to science.
A White House email sent out prior to the signing of an executive order by President Obama on Monday said that his action would be a “restoring of scientific integrity to the government process.” An official of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation said that Mr. Obama’s initiative would signal the return to an era of “scientists making scientific decisions.” And again and again over the years it has been said by research proponents that it was “ideology” that was behind the stem cell opposition – not science, and not reason.
At least three confusions need to be sorted out: on the difference between science and ethics, on the difference between a rejection of stem cell research and various forms of genuine abuse of science, and on the notion that opposition is “ideological.”
A standard dictionary definition of science is that it is “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomenon.” Put in more ordinary language, science is the effort to empirically understand the natural world, to discover facts about that world, and to test the validity of empirical theories. Ethics, by contrast, is the effort to determine the difference between good and bad in human behavior and to devise rules and principles regulating human interactions.
Stem cell research is, as science, an effort to understand the biology of stem cells and to make use of that knowledge for medical treatments and cures. It is the task of ethics, not science, to determine whether that research is morally good or bad, helpful or harmful. To deny the potential of the research for medical benefit, a reasonable empirical hypothesis, could be called anti-science. To reject the research on moral grounds (whether one agrees with the arguments or not) is not to be anti-science. If those members of Congress who want the government ban to stay in place were also systematically voting down all medical and other scientific research, that would be anti-science. They have not done that.
I offer an analogy. I have been a long-time supporter of family planning programs. The scientific evidence supports the belief that they are an effective way to reduce unwanted pregnancies. But that evidence does not by itself tell me whether I ought, as an ethical matter, to decide that the government should pay for such programs. My ethical values say that it should do so. Opposition to the such programs does not in any way, however, count as anti-science; that is a disagreement about ethics, not science.
The second confusion is to conflate opposition to stem cell research and a variety other actions by the Bush administration. That administration was guilty of manipulating, or suppressing, scientific information on a wide range of issues, including global warming and sex education. I call that behavior patently anti-science as well as a misuse of government power. But its stem cell opposition did not encompass any distortion of the science of such research. That is not how it argued its case.
The third confusion is that the opposition to stem cell research is an expression of ideology, primarily of a religious and conservative kind. That is surely true. But the cluster of beliefs and actions by those in favor of the research bespeak no less an ideology: that of the value of science and medical research, the hopes invested in the research, the lowly moral status of embryos, and the belief that the government should support valuable research. The difference is that liberals often have a hard time noticing that their convictions are as much flavored by ideology as their opponents. One is reminded here of the observation that fish are the only creatures who do not realize they are in water.