July 09, 2006

Morally Serious Use of Hwang to Hammer Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In the Washington Post, Eric Cohen and Robert George hail the Santorum/Specter bill to "fund any creative proposal for advancing stem cell research without destroying nascent human life."

Whether or not you agree with their conclusion, or that of Specter and Santorum (whose proposal Cohen and George do not seem to understand entirely), the argument Cohen and George make is frightfully effective exactly because it demonstrates that at moments like these - when stem cell funding is hotly debated on the hill - opponents of embryonic stem cell research will say almost anything. So they do. Cohen and George argue that all embryonic stem cell research is tied, fundamentally, to the moral horrors of Hwang.

This would be a plausible argument, were it not so obviously false. Everyone knows that Hwang would never have become a leader in the stem cell race had the federal government begun funding and regulating stem cell research early on. But that will not do. So Cohen and George turn the facts on their head, claiming instead that awful Hwangs will pop up any time embryonic stem cell research is attempted.

And, again, the argument they advance would fall away unnoticed (and indeed may) but for the Rove-esque language they use:

In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create.
Right. It sounds so, um, plausible. Except for that part about how nuclear transfer is so evil that it turns everyone who does it into a liar.

It is hard to read the essay as more than silly trickery, aimed once again at using "Hurlbutism" (seriousness + pseudoscience) to fool the DC Post-reading crowd into believing that there is a cadre of stem cell scientists out there who believe that the next step - the next big priority - in stem cell research should be the search for alternatives to embryonic cell research, rather than continuing such research with the hope that it will one day no longer be necessary.

But there is a kernel of truth in the piece, if you can stand to read it all: we should reward scientific imagination, and nobody really wants to destroy an embryo. If we could just support imagination in earnest, rather than using it as yet another political tool in the futile stem cell battle in Washington...

View blog reactions

| More