President Obama was recently quoted in a New York Times interview as saying:
Somebody noted to me that by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard. Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it.
However, it is painfully obvious that with regard to stem cell research the president couldn’t or wouldn’t make the “really hard” decision.
As both the news and op-ed pieces in the Washington Post indicate, Obama, to the surprise of even embryonic stem cell researchers, punted the tough calls on human cloning and on use of embryos created specifically for research. The news report notes:
The task of deciding what kinds of studies will be supported now falls to the National Institutes of Health, which finds itself confronting far more extensive questions than its officials were contemplating. It has 120 days to do the job.
Among other things, officials will have to decide whether to endorse studies on cells obtained from much more contentious sources, such as embryos created specifically for research or by means of cloning techniques.
“He left it wide open,” said Thomas H. Murray, director of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. “Now we are going to have to face a host of morally complicated, politically charged questions. There’s not an easy path forward for them out of here.”
And the opinion editors seem uneasy about the president fobbing off these decisions on scientists:
Aside from saying, “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering,” the president has not given a hint as to where he stands on some thorny questions. Should Dickey-Wicker [banning bans federal money from being used to create or destroy human embryos for research, but not research on stem cells from such embryos] be repealed? He leaves it up to Congress to decide that. Where does he stand on growing human embryos for experimentation in general and using them for stem cells in particular? It’s unclear.
The White House said that Mr. Obama doesn’t want to prejudge the NIH guidelines but that this will not be the last we’ll hear from Mr. Obama on this subject. We hope not. Some of these ethical questions need to be dealt with in the political arena, and not just by scientists.
This is yet another “above my pay-grade” moment. Reasonable and thoughtful people can disagree on where to draw the line on stem cell research. But at least George W. Bush went to the trouble of considering the issues and taking on the responsibility for deciding where to draw that line. This is, as Obama says, the job of the president — to make the tough calls.
The president and his defenders operate according to the illusion that these are all “scientific” decisions and can be left up to the staffers at NIH. But these, are not decisions about science; rather, they involve the political and moral dilemmas on how we want the government to participate in research.
Obama took the opportunity, as he does at all of these signing ceremonies, to take a shot at George W. Bush. He declared himself to be breaking with the past and re-establishing the rightful place of science. Actually, the most noteworthy break from the past is that we no longer have a president willing to think through hard moral questions and take the heat for his decisions.