President Obama says he believes strong moral guidelines important in science

WASHINGTON – Saying he believes strong moral guidelines are important in the human life sciences, President Barack Obama said he would be happy to avoid ethical and political disputes if alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research turn out to be equally promising.

During his March 24 press conference, President Obama was asked about his personal moral and ethical considerations about whether to allow federally funded research using embryonic stem cells.

“I wrestle with these issues every day,” President Obama told reporters.

He said he believes it’s important to have “strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines when it comes to stem-cell research or anything that touches on … the human life sciences.”

President Obama said he thinks the guidelines in his March 9 executive order permitting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research meet the test for strong ethical boundaries.

Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. bishops are among those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research, equating it with abortion because it destroys human embryos.

The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, has criticized President Obama’s decision to allow funding of such research, saying it “disregards the values of millions of American taxpayers who oppose research that requires taking human life.”

President Obama’s press conference focused largely on the economic crisis and his administration’s efforts to reverse the problems. Questions on other topics included prospects for peace in the Middle East, his proposal to reduce tax deductions for certain types of charitable donations and whether race has been a subtext of his first weeks in office.

On the question about stem cells, President Obama acknowledged that it is a difficult moral question. “By the time an issue reaches my desk, it’s a hard issue. If it was an easy issue, somebody else would have solved it and it wouldn’t have reached me,” he said.

“What we have said is that for embryos that are typically about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson’s or for Alzheimer’s or, you know, all sorts of other debilitating diseases – juvenile diabetes – that it is the right thing to do. And that’s not just my opinion; that is the opinion of a number of people who are also against abortion.”

In reversing a Bush administration policy limiting embryonic stem-cell research to a few stem-cell lines existing before Aug. 9, 2001, President Obama said March 9 that the previous restrictions had forced “a false choice between sound science and moral values.”

President Obama’s executive order permits federal funding of stem-cell lines created since then, but would not allow funding of the creation of new lines, leaving that decision to Congress.

At the March 24 press conference, President Obama said he’s glad to see progress being made in research using adult stem cells, which are not derived from embryos, but obtained from cells after birth.

“And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that’s great. I have … no investment in causing controversy,” he said. “I’m happy to avoid it, if that’s where the science leads us.”

“But what I don’t want to do is predetermine this based on a very rigid, ideological approach, and that’s what I think is reflected in the executive order that I signed,” he continued.

Asked in a follow-up question whether “scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do,” President Obama answered, “No.”

“There’s always an ethical and moral element that has to be a part of this,” he said. “My hope is that we can find a mechanism ultimately to cure these diseases in a way that gains 100 percent consensus. And we certainly haven’t achieved that yet, but I think on balance this was the right step to take.”

In response to another question about his plan to reduce the deduction certain taxpayers can take for donations to charity, the president said it equalizes the system in favor of people with lower income.

“This provision would affect about 1 percent of the American people,” he said. “They would still get deductions. It’s just that they wouldn’t be able to write off 39 percent. In that sense, what it would do is it would equalize – when I give $100, I’d get the same amount of deduction as when … a bus driver, who’s making $50,000 a year, or $40,000 a year, gives that same $100.

“Right now he gets 28 percent – he gets to write off 28 percent; I get to write off 39 percent. I don’t think that’s fair,” he said.

He said he didn’t think the change would deter people from donating to charity. “If it’s really a charitable contribution, I’m assuming that that shouldn’t be a determining factor as to whether you’re giving that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street.”

The more significant impact on charitable giving is the weak economy, President Obama said.

“The most important thing that I can do for charitable giving is to fix the economy; to get banks lending again, to get businesses opening their doors again, and to get people back to work again,” he said. “Then I think charities will do just fine.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.