Nine years ago, the White House announced and implemented the first-ever federal funding policy for stem-cell research. That policy sought to advance cutting-edge research while remaining faithful to the U.S. government’s long-standing posture of neutrality toward research that depends on the use and destruction of living human embryos: It neither funded it nor proscribed it. Last year, President Obama announced a new policy that marked a radical and misguided departure from this approach, and the National Institutes of Health published new guidelines to implement this change in policy. On August 23, 2010, Judge Royce Lamberth of the federal district court in Washington D.C. issued a preliminary injunction against the NIH guidelines because a very strong case can be made that they violate a statutory ban (known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment) on the use of federal funds to support “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” Judge Lamberth’s ruling is only preliminary and preserves a pre–Obama policy status quo while further litigation proceeds—or the administration changes its guidelines. In light of these events, it is worth pausing to reflect carefully on the new policy the Obama administration seeks to put in place, including its justifications and implementation.
If the new policy survives the challenge of litigation, for the first time in U.S. history, taxpayer funds will be available to promote research that requires the destruction of human embryos. This sharp reversal of direction was imposed with essentially no public justification or argument, and indeed with efforts that mask its true nature and significance. Since the new policy took effect, with an executive order issued in early March of last year, the Obama administration and its congressional allies have sought to avoid further argument about embryo-destructive research and to depict the debate as settled.
We believe the debate is not settled, and we commend Judge Lamberth for faithfully applying existing law that voices the conviction of a majority of the American people that human life is not to be destroyed with taxpayer dollars. The question of the use and destruction of human embryos in scientific research requires greater consideration than the administration has given it, and the new policy raises serious concerns that should be brought to light. A free nation can never permit itself to be indifferent to the treatment of human beings, let alone to be actively complicit in their abuse, yet the new policy and the president’s statements commit the nation’s resources to such complicity in the mistreatment of developing human lives. We hope that by laying out the policy and the statements, and explaining the ways in which they both violate crucial ethical principles and fundamentally misrepresent the relevant scientific facts, we may alert our fellow citizens to a grave injustice in need of swift correction.
The New Policy
The administration’s new policy was announced by the president on March 9, 2009, was elucidated by guidelines published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) four months later, and came into effect with a series of grants announced at the beginning of December of that year. The new policy overturned three decades of federal refusal to use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of human embryos for research. Now, the federal government would offer public funds to support research using newly created lines of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), thereby providing a direct incentive to destroy human embryos to produce such lines. In the name of the American people, the federal government made researchers an unmistakable offer: If you destroy human embryos to produce new lines of cells, you and others will become eligible for public dollars to study those lines.
President Obama’s executive order announced this new policy in one terse and conclusory sentence: “The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.” None of these criteria is defined or elaborated in the text of the order. It leaves the details to the NIH.
Substantively, the order imposes virtually no limits on funding for embryonic stem-cell research. It does not, for example, include any restrictions on funding for research involving stem cells derived from human embryos who were created solely for the sake of research by whatever means, including cloning. Even the statement that funding is restricted by law is misleading, since the only legal restrictions on such funding are appropriations riders that must be reauthorized every year. The instability of this “restriction” is aggravated by the fact that, in his speech announcing the new policy, President Obama called on Congress to pass new laws that further advance embryo-destructive research.
The NIH guidelines that followed, some four months after President Obama’s announcement, did define some more particular—although temporary—boundaries. Under these rules, now enjoined by Judge Lamberth, funding is restricted to research involving cell lines derived from embryos who were “created using in vitro fertilization for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for this purpose,” where such embryos were donated by the parents. The guidelines forbid funding for research that uses embryonic stem cells derived from embryos conceived by human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer), parthenogenesis, “and/or IVF embryos created for research purposes.”
Moreover, applicants for federal funding must document that “all options available in the health facility where treatment was sought” and that “what would happen to the embryos in the derivation of hESCs for research” was explained to the donors and their informed consent secured, and that no payments were offered for the embryos. For applicants seeking funding for research involving lines derived before the new policy was announced, an advisory committee to the director of NIH may recommend funding even if these criteria are not completely met, if the committee is persuaded that the embryos in question were created by in vitro fertilization for reproductive purposes and donated by individuals who gave written consent.
The guidelines also prohibit funding for research in which human embryonic stem-cell lines are “introduced into non-human primate blastocysts” or which involves “the breeding of animals where the introduction of hESCs or human induced pluripotent stem cells may contribute to the germ line.” They mention an appropriations rider (the Dickey Amendment) that forbids federal funding for the direct destruction of embryos by researchers, although the rider has been construed to permit federal funding for research using the cells derived from such destruction.
The NIH guidelines are indeed more restrictive than President Obama’s executive order. But it is worth noting two things. First, even with these limitations, the guidelines mark the first time in history that taxpayer dollars have been conscripted into supporting and promoting the use and destruction of living human beings. Indeed, they permit funding for lines derived by every technique now known to be practiced in the field of embryo research. The only techniques left out of bounds are all speculative. Second, the guidelines can be changed in very short order, given the breadth of the executive order they are implementing. It would be a very small thing for the NIH to adopt a far more aggressive posture of funding embryo-destructive research including, for example, funding for research involving stem-cell lines derived from embryos created solely for the sake of research (e.g., by IVF or cloning).
It is also important to note that the guidelines are grossly inadequate for their own purposes. For instance, they do not require the fertility clinic seeking a parent’s consent for making his or her embryos available for research to inform the parent specifically that the research will destroy those embryos. They also do not require the clinic to inform parents of any alternatives for their embryos beyond those available at that particular clinic; since most clinics do not offer embryo adoption, most parents will never be told they have an option that will preserve the life of their embryonic child. The guidelines fail even to prohibit the serious conflict of interest inherent in circumstances in which the fertility doctor advising the parents and the embryo researcher who will destroy their embryos work closely together, or indeed are actually the same person.
Beyond its direct effects—on the embryos themselves and on the taxpayers whose money will now be used to provide incentives for the destruction of human embryos—this radical new policy entrenches in federal law a dangerous precedent: the principle that some human beings may be instrumentalized and treated as raw materials. Respect for the lives of all human beings is eroded as a result.
The new funding guidelines simply ignore this concern, instead describing in great detail a regime of so-called ethical rules that in fact address only questions of informed consent and professional practice—questions that can be asked only when more fundamental ethical concerns about the treatment of human embryos have been put aside.
The President’s Explanation
Both the president and the guidelines put aside such concerns. In his remarks announcing the new policy, President Obama noted that “many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.” Yet he in no way sought to address, explain, or even refer in any detail whatsoever to the particulars of that point of view. Instead, he claimed, without evidence, that “the majority of Americans—from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs—have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research” and then proceeded to explain how his administration would pursue it.
At no point has the president offered any argument for treating human embryos as less than human beings and intentionally destroying them for scientific research. At no point has the administration sought to answer the arguments of those who oppose the research. They have treated the question of the moral status of human embryos as entirely irrelevant to their policy decision, and have insisted that any relevant ethical concerns about embryonic stem-cell research are addressed by the informed-consent guidelines.
Rather than take up the profound ethical questions and make a case for his position grounded in moral principles and biological facts, the president has chosen to allow the question to be entirely subsumed by what he insists is the scientific imperative to pursue embryo-destructive research.
The executive order, for example, offers only one positive argument in favor of the new approach, which reads, in full, “Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by federal funds.” The notion that “the scientific community” alone should determine what research should be supported by federal funds betrays a serious misunderstanding of the president’s responsibility, and of science policy in a democracy.
Many of the president’s other statements on the subject betray a similar misapprehension. In his March 9 remarks, President Obama said: “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.” But science is not merely abstract inquiry. Science is also concrete action, and, when those acted on are human beings, scientists must answer to moral principles and boundaries for which—and to which—the whole society is responsible. These principles and boundaries are not the province of scientists alone, but of all men and women, employing the moral reasoning common to us all, and making the shared effort to be an ethically responsible society. Slighting this common responsibility and attempting to hide behind the authority of science makes it impossible to have an informed ethical debate.
President Obama’s failure to grasp this essential truth about the limits of science is all the more worrisome given the lofty aspirations he expressed for his funding policy, which border on the utopian or the messianic. In his March 9 speech, he said: “There is no finish line in science. The race is always with us—the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ are finally retired from our vocabulary.”
The Ethical Issues
Because of the failure of President Obama and his administration to do so thus far, we should consider carefully the ethical issues at stake in scientific experimentation that uses and destroys human embryos. That consideration can certainly begin from what the science tells us about the nature and biology of human embryos. And what it tells us turns out to be, in the president’s own word, “inconvenient” for those who would treat human embryos as mere raw materials for research.
Following conception, from the single-cell stage of development onward, the human embryo is a discrete, living, self-directing, integrated, whole member of the human species who, if given the appropriate environment, will move along the seamless trajectory of biological development. From the beginning—and a fortiori at the blastocyst stage, when the embryo might be destroyed to derive embryonic stem cells—the embryo is a living, individuated organism. It is a whole and not a part.
Indeed, each embryo’s constituent parts are integrated so as to advance the species-specific development of the whole being. Neither the facts of “twinning” (a rare process of regulation and restitution in which disaggregated blastomeres sometimes resolve themselves into a new organism) nor “natural embryo loss” (the seemingly high rate of embryonic deaths in utero before or shortly after implantation) calls into question the living embryo’s status as an individuated whole member of the human species. Biologically, it is beyond dispute that he or she is a living organism from the very beginning—is, from the moment of conception, a human being.
These facts do not by themselves resolve the ethical question of the use of human embryos for research. We would not claim that science alone resolves moral questions. Rather, these facts inform our judgment of the moral standing of the embryo. They help us formulate the question that should guide public policy about the destruction of human embryos for research: Should human beings at the earliest stages of life be used as raw materials and have their lives ended for the sake of medical research, however promising that research might be?
This question could hardly be more important for a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. It gets to the heart of our commitment to the equal dignity of every human being. Biologically, the human embryo is as much a human being as any of us. But what does that fact mean, morally and practically? Is our equal humanity enough to merit some protection and regard—at least the minimal protection from being killed on purpose—or are we required to prove we have some other preferred set of capacities and abilities (which all humans possess to varying degrees in the course of their lives) to qualify for protection from harm? Do we refrain from mistreating fellow human beings because of what they can do, which excludes some, or because of who they are? Shall we treat the human embryo as less than human because that embryo would be more useful to us dead than alive? Or shall we treat our equal humanity as a vital brake on our ambitions, even when it comes at a price? Shall we limit our ambitions, even at a price to ourselves?
We believe these questions have a clear answer. Every human being deserves to be treated with the same basic level of concern and regard that we owe to all members of our species. At the very least, no innocent human being may be harmed intentionally to benefit others. To abandon this principle is to embrace an incoherent, indeed self-destroying, conception of equality. If equality means anything at all, it must mean that individuals deserve equal moral regard and legal protection in virtue of who they are, not because of their worth as judged (or assigned) by others according to their needs or wants.
The decision to treat some human beings as raw materials or instruments for the use of others—the fundamental decision embodied by the administration’s funding policy for embryonic stem-cell research—denies the equal dignity of every human being and insists that some deserve to be treated like human beings and others do not, for reasons that have to do not with the embryonic human beings involved but with the attitudes, desires, or needs of the rest of us. As a policy supporting such treatment with public dollars, moreover, it implicates us all.
The Administration’s Confusion
The administration’s rules seem implicitly to recognize some deep problem with such abuse of human embryos, but in a confused and inadequate way. While the rules allow for funding new lines of embryonic stem cells, they do not permit funds to be used on lines from embryos created specifically to be destroyed for research. Embryos abandoned by their parents (and therefore unlikely to be implanted and to develop to birth) are fair game for researchers, but no embryos can be produced specifically for experimentation. The distinction is never explained but seems to rest on the proposition that, since embryos created for fertility treatment but not used are likely to be stored or discarded, they can legitimately be destroyed for research instead, while creating new human lives specifically for the purposes of such research, on the other hand, is unethical.
This reasoning is deeply flawed. The embryos who find themselves in clinic freezers are there as a result of choices made by others—namely, their parents and the clinicians involved. To use these circumstances as an excuse to destroy them—to say that embryos in these circumstances are not entitled to even the most minimal protection and regard we give to fellow human beings—is to empower some of us to render or to deem the lives of others meaningless, and to allow those who do so to evade the moral consequences of their actions.
These embryos already began their lives in the service of a biomedical project designed to serve the needs of others; now we propose to end their lives in the service of another such project and somehow judge the balance ethically acceptable. It is true many of them will “die anyway,” but, as Gilbert Meilaender has written, “our relation to their dying is not a matter for moral indifference. It is one thing for us to acquiesce in their death; it is quite another for us to embrace their death as our aim, to seize on it as an advantageous opportunity to use them yet again for our purposes.”
The administration’s distinction between embryos who have been abandoned by their parents and those created specifically for research simply does not hold up. Anyone moved to make such a distinction would seem to be worried enough about the standing of human embryos to seek to avoid gross and intentional abuses. Some reflection on the nature of the distinction, however, should persuade such a person that it fails to avoid such abuses.
The refusal to avoid the abuse of human life inherent in embryo research is especially troubling in light of the fact that scientific alternatives to such practices are increasingly available and effective. Whatever its merits might once have seemed, the case for a scientific imperative for the research—which is the core of the administration’s position—has grown increasingly weak in recent years.
Ironically, federal policy has taken a sharp turn in favor of embryo-destructive research just as the science emerging from the nation’s leading stem-cell research labs has begun to turn elsewhere. For about the past five years, a series of alternative sources of human pluripotent stem cells, perhaps most notably so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells), have increasingly been proving their utility. This is another truth “inconvenient” to those who are steadfastly committed to promoting embryo-destructive research. Several of these techniques offer benefits that the use of cells derived from embryos produced for fertility treatment do not, such as the potential for genetically matched cell lines and for the development of lines from patients with particular diseases. Just as important, all of these techniques offer the potential to advance promising research without imperiling our commitment to the equal dignity and standing of every human being.
President Obama has said that he supports the exploration of these alternative avenues, yet his actions suggest otherwise. As he reversed his predecessor’s funding policy for embryonic stem-cell research last March, he also revoked his predecessor’s 2007 executive order supporting the exploration of alternative sources of stem cells. There is no good reason to revoke such support. Whatever his intent, President Obama’s actions make it more difficult for ethically uncontroversial alternatives to the destruction of human embryos to succeed.
In designing his funding policy, the president also declined to privilege avenues of research with the greatest potential for near-term clinical benefit. Ignoring such opportunities, his policy instead has a single-minded focus on the funding of stem cells from one particular source—destroyed human embryos. It is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that his administration’s approach to a matter of such moral gravity and scientific importance is guided by wholly political impulses. If so, there could hardly be a plainer case of the naked politicization of science in the very worst sense.
The policies of the Obama administration support and encourage the mistreatment and destruction of human life for scientific research. In the name of the American people, and with the funds provided by them, it has begun to incentivize such research. It has done so without addressing the profound moral issues at stake, without offering a serious argument in defense of its approach, and in spite of the fact that alternatives to the destruction of embryos are emerging in stem-cell science. The scant ethical safeguards the policies do provide are grossly inadequate even in light of their own purposes.
We urge all those concerned for the American ideals of equality and human dignity, for the integrity of American science, and for the sanctity of human life to consider carefully the significance of the administration’s approach and to express their unease and opposition. And we urge President Obama to consider his responsibility as a public official and steward of the public’s resources and to reverse his ill-conceived policy.
The Neuhaus Colloquium, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and cosponsored by First Things, was founded to discuss questions of ethics and public affairs and held its first meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, on September 17, 2009. This statement results from discussions begun among the Colloquium’s members that day.
George Mason University School of Law
Ryan T. Anderson
Gerard V. Bradley
University of Notre Dame Law School
The New Atlantis
Maureen L. Condic
University of Utah School of Medicine
Farr A. Curlin
University of Chicago
Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Chicago
Matthew J. Franck
Robert P. George
Mary Ann Glendon
Harvard Law School
William B. Hurlbut, MD
Neuroscience Institute at Stanford
Donald W. Landry
Franciscan University of Steubenville
American Enterprise Institute
University of Notre Dame Law School
James R. Stoner, Jr.
Louisiana State University
University of South Carolina
Micah J. Watson