Barack Obama rightly advances scientific research, it’s the moral elitism which is offensive

Yesterday, President Barack Obama reversed the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. For many in the scientific community, this means increased funding for their projects and to patients it means hope for more cures for terrible diseases and ailments. I believe that the selective withholding of federal funds from this area of research was done for political reasons to satisfy a certain “moral” base of voters. Because of this, I’ve been cynical of Bush’s decision; it was public policy made on a sort of moral elitism.

For someone who has studied and manipulated the cellular basis of life (both simple and complex) in the laboratory with public funds, I can confidently say that Obama’s reversal advances medical research. Though I may disagree with the moral argument that human lives are extinguished with every embryonic cell line experiment, I do sympathize with people who hold these strong and fundamental views.

Yesterday’s announcement was itself minor; the only public policy change was the use of federal funds for this sort of research. The use of embryonic stem cells in experiments has been done for years with private money by private labs seeking profit from innovation. The issue only comes to the forefront of the public conscience via the moral debate which envelops the policy. What lies at the core for those for and against this type of research? For advocates against, they argue that public money consists of their money and public money is therefore a collective and democratically tyrannical breach of their morality. For advocates for, well there’s more money for this still relatively minor slice of the federal research budget to complement the funding and research done in the private sector.

And therein lies the rub. Advocates for this public money have made a lot of noise for this realistically minor victory. They’ve heralded this as a return to sanity of the executive branch, a reversal from misinformed values interfering with progress, and the moment when the oceans stopped rising and embryonic stem cells started dividing in public labs. What underlies their ebullience?

For the amount of media coverage received and public airing of this issue over the past 72 hours, it has gone beyond the fundamentals of the policy to overt moral gloating. And where I find offense is the moral elitism surrounding partisan supporters of the debate. For some that don’t even understand the science behind embryonic stem cells and their progenetive potential, this is rather a chance to rub the face of their moral opponents in the proverbial cell culture.

“You religious cretin, these aren’t babies!”

Those that investigate the cellular basis of life don’t know when a “human” life truly begins. We may have more scientifically-informed opinions but we cannot yet truly know. Even a cell biologist who uses embryonic stem cells in her research cannot honestly dismiss all ethical questions.

Similarly, those that hold deep religious convictions cannot truly know when life begins. They may have more faith-informed religious beliefs, but like the rest of us, they cannot yet truly know. Even a devout clergyman cannot honestly dismiss all ethical implications of forbidding the research.

For scientists, yesterday’s announcement was a victory for research. For many of those that share this victory, but are gloating though ignorant of the finer details of the science, this was a victory of moral one-upsmanship. These gloaters are no better than their moral elitist counterparts under Bush who told others that their moral conviction was absolute (and better for everyone else). In fact, the latter may be worse because an element of their boastful victory is won in spite of their opponents values while the former enjoyed victory despite them.

While I share the victory and cautiously applaud Obama’s announcement, I sympathize with those who hold strong and fundamental views against this sort of research done in their name. Issues of life that intersect with public policy never produce perfect victories for everyone nor for either side individually.