The new emperor’s clones: Obama’s refreshing but tepid embrace of reasoned sci/tech policy

On 9 March, President Obama issued an executive order to lift hobbling restrictions on embryonic stem cell research imposed by his predecessor, George Bush. In its own right, Obama’s order enacts a substantive and welcome change, jumpstarting an exciting and clinically promising line of biomedical research. But the revival of stem cell research can also be seen as part of a larger, ongoing effort to strip away religiously motivated fetters placed on many fronts of American science by the Bush administration.

Sadly, despite some real progress, these fetters continue to ominously hinder the American public discourse on science — even on occasions, such as the the new executive order on stem cell research, that should be clear victories for empiricism. Like other reversals of Bush policy that have reinstated sound, empirically driven policy on such matters as greenhouse gas regulation, the stem cell order conveys a clear grasp of the societal value of the ever skeptical mode of systematic inquiry that we call science. Yet, in remarks at the signing ceremony, Obama was careful to solemnly profess his ‘faith’. In doing so, he likely meant to console opponents of stem cell research, many of whom are religious. Reaching out to opponents is a laudable goal, and one that Obama consciously cultivates in his role as a ‘uniter’. Yet it is frustrating that, in a national ‘teachable moment’, Obama could apparently find no better way to reach out to do so than by emphasizing a pat solidarity rooted in shared baseless beliefs.

And that wasn’t the only way in which, even while redressing another case of scientific sabotage by his predecessor, Obama shrank from fully championing a reasoned approach to policymaking. As a sign of specific future policy intentions, Obama’s latest profession of faith may have been less telling than his use of the signing ceremony to harshly, but emptily, condemn the prospect of human reproductive cloning. Speaking with customary force, but without laying out a chain of reasoning such as we’ve come to expect from him, he declared that ‘[cloning] is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.’ Obama’s mention of cloning as a foil to stem cell research reinforced a pattern that has emerged in American politics, in which the two issues seem to have become joined at the hip, appearing together with the rote predictability of a pantomime hero and villain. This rhetorical conflation (which is nearly always resolved with some dramatic flourish of contrast) may serve mainly to let supporters of stem cell research distance themselves from an ostensibly obvious evil, thereby reassuring us of their credentials as decent members of the human race. But if stem cell research is right, must reproductive cloning be wrong? Perhaps this moment — punctuated, as it is, by a major change in federal biomedical research policy — is a good one for reviewing the question. Below is an attempt, in several parts, to do just that.