Stem Cells: Science, Ethics, and Ideology
Science and Society

By Daniel Callahan

, 03/09/2009

Stem Cells: Science, Ethics, and Ideology

(Science and Society) Permanent link

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.


Posted by Greg Kaebnick at 03/09/2009 01:14:23 PM | 

Two important observations:

1. A practical observation: There has been significant progress in connection with the use of adult stem cells - often the patient's own stem cells. It is thoroughly reasonable to continue efforts to expand the use of adult stem cells for appropriate therapies. Such work is ethically and morally licit.

2. There are perhaps two majors schools of bioethics:

One school seeks to develop justification for pursuing predetermined courses of action.

The other school seeks to determine what is and what is not ethically persmissible. It stands by those principles despite even vituperative remarks and accusations of being anti-scientific.

Clearly, I stand with the latter school.

Deacon Pete Gummere
St Johnsbury, VT
Posted by: ( Email ) at 3/13/2009 10:44 AM

I'll accept that it's ideological to assign an early stage human embryo to a lower moral status than the potential benefit from research with embryonic stem cells, if Dr. Callahan will accept that his ideology of assigning inviolable moral status to the embryo will result in no benefit. My ideology balances the destruction of an embryo against the production of medical benefits; Dr. Callahan's ideology is absolute.
Posted by: ( Email ) at 3/13/2009 12:06 PM

With regard to the second comment, a reread of the piece will show that Dr. Callahan never says that the embryo has inviolable moral status. In fact, he doesn't even think it. Dr. Callahan opposes embyronic stem cell research on the grounds that its scientific promise is too uncertain and that funds could be better spent elsewhere, particularly for meeting basic health care needs.
Posted by: Alison Jost (
Posted by: ( Email ) at 3/13/2009 3:53 PM

I agree with Ms. Jost that Dr. Callahan would prefer the funds be spent elsewhere, but there's more to his position: "Respect for embryos in any meaningful sense is, at the least, incompatible with destroying them solely for our medical benefit." (D. Callahan, Promises, Promises: Is Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Sound Public Policy? Commonweal 132(1): 12-14 (2005).)
Posted by: ( Email ) at 3/16/2009 3:39 PM

Genetic manipulation in general, including stem-cell research and its tecnological uses, are to XXI century as Galileo was to XVII's: its the door to new horizons in cience and health-care
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