A High-Profile Proponent of Embryonic Stem Cell Research Sharply Criticizes Obama’s Policy

When President Obama signed the Executive Order last week which overturned President Bush’s policy on stem cell research, the White House extended a warm invitation to the noted Dr. Charles Krauthammer, among other distinguished guests, to attend the official signing ceremony. Dr. Krauthammer declined the invitation, and vehemently refused to attend the ceremony. In his op-ed article in The Washington Post today, entitled “Obama’s ‘Science’ Fiction”, Dr. Krauthammer explains precisely why, and in no uncertain terms.

During the 5 years that Dr. Krauthammer served on President Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, and despite the fact that he had been personally appointed to the council by President Bush himself, Dr. Krauthammer consistently argued, as he explains, “that, contrary to the Bush policy, federal funding should be extended to research on embryonic stem cell lines derived from discarded embryos in fertility clinics.” The words, “derived from discarded embryos in fertility clinics” constitute the key point in Dr. Krauthammer’s stance under the Bush administration, which is precisely why he refused to accept President Obama’s invitation. “I declined to attend,” Dr. Krauthammer states. “Once you show your face at these things, you become a tacit endorser of whatever they spring. My caution was vindicated.” Dr. Krauthammer has now made it perfectly clear that he certainly does not endorse President Obama’s policy on stem cells, and far from remaining tacit on the subject, Dr. Krauthammer has authored an eye-opening and blunt assessment of President Obama’s mistakes in this matter.

Dr. Krauthammer begins his Washington Post op-ed piece by reminding the reader of the context within which the new administration’s actions have taken place. “President Bush had restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cells derived from embryos that had already been destroyed (as of his speech of August 9, 2001),” Dr. Krauthammer explains. “While I favor moving that moral line to additionally permit the use of spare fertility clinic embryos,” he continues, “President Obama replaced it with no line at all. He pointedly left open the creation of cloned – and noncloned sperm-and-egg-derived – human embryos solely for the purpose of dismemberment and use for parts.”

Lest anyone misunderstand Dr. Krauthammer, he further clarifies his stance by adding, “I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research – a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end. On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of ‘science’ and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.”

Dr. Krauthammer echoes the sentiments of many other scientists and doctors, few of whom enjoy the distinction, as Dr. Krauthammer does, of having won a Pulitzer Prize and of having been a former U.S. Presidential Science Advisor and of having their views and opinions deemed to be so insightful and valuable that they are regularly featured in the nation’s, and indeed the world’s, leading newspapers. Nor are there many scientists and doctors who personally received invitations from the White House to attend Obama’s signing ceremony, as Dr. Krauthammer did; perhaps even fewer would have had the courage and integrity to decline such an invitation, if they had been invited. Additionally, Dr. Krauthammer does not hesitate to make the point that, even if he had somehow managed to convince himself to go to the White House for the ceremony, he would not have stayed long.

As Dr. Krauthammer continues, “That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part – the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on ‘restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making’ – would have made me walk out. Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics. What an outrage. Bush’s nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view AND THE CONTRARY VIEW that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out. Obama’s address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the ‘false choice between sound science and moral values.’ Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the ‘use of cloning for human reproduction.’ Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it. Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others are not.”

The outrage that Dr. Krauthammer expresses so eloquently is mild in comparison to that which many other people feel, such as, for example, the numerous distinguished scientists and doctors who work exclusively with adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells, and to whom Obama’s new policy, not to mention his insulting and confrontational remarks, are a direct and blatant affront. Most scientists and doctors, however, even those who work only with adult stem cells, stop just short of engaging in ethical debate. Dr. Krauthammer, however, is not so timid, and fortunately for the rest of us he is unafraid to call a spade a spade. As Dr. Krauthammer puts it, in regard to Obama’s actions, “This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics. Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama’s pretense that he will ‘restore science to its rightful place’ and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand – this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically ‘scientific’.”

Dr. Krauthammer’s words for Obama are not to be taken lightly, nor is Dr. Krauthammer’s stance on stem cell research. Having been paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1972 during his first year in medical school, Dr. Krauthammer has been a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair for nearly 4 decades. If anyone could benefit from stem cell therapies, it would be Dr. Krauthammer. Despite the automobile accident, however, and despite the resulting year-long hospitalization and his permanent paraplegia, Dr. Krauthammer graduated with the rest of his class from Harvard Medical School in 1975 and went on to become a leading psychiatrist at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His seminal work, discoveries and publications during these years are still repeatedly cited today in the leading textbooks of the field. Although he is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, he chose to leave medical practice in 1978 when he was appointed Presidential Science Advisor to President Carter. Since then, his views and analyses on a variety of national and international issues have been widely respected and specifically sought by presidential administrations of both parties; indeed, his views and analyses have helped to shape the very structure of formal U.S. national and international policy over the years.

In 2006, Charles Krauthammer, M.D., was named the “most influential commentator in America” by the Financial Times, which wrote: “Krauthammer has influenced U.S. foreign policy for more than two decades. He coined and developed ‘The Reagan Doctrine’ in 1985 and he defined the U.S. role as sole superpower in his essay, ‘The Unipolar Moment’, published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Krauthammer’s 2004 speech ‘Democratic Realism’ set out a framework for tackling the post 9/11 world, focusing on the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.”

In 1987 Dr. Krauthammer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his “distinguished commentary” and highly influential work at The Washington Post. To this day, his weekly column still appears in The Washington Post and is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers and media outlets around the world.

Even as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics under President George W. Bush, Dr. Krauthammer did not hesitate to oppose President Bush’s stance on stem cell policy, even though he respected President Bush’s attempts to balance opposing views of the argument. Now, however, through Obama’s pretentious and grossly ill-advised statements on this gravely serious matter, the new president has not only disappointed but directly offended many people who had higher hopes for him, especially within the scientific and medical communities.

Dr. Krauthammer concludes his Washington Post op-ed article by quoting none other than Dr. James Thomson, the mild-mannered developmental biologist who suddenly skyrocketed to international fame when he became the first person to isolate a human embryonic stem cell in the laboratory in 1998, and who is now revered throughout the world as the “father” of embryonic stem cell science. As Dr. Krauthammer writes, “Dr. James Thomson, the pioneer of embryonic stem cells, said ‘if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.’ Obama clearly has not.”

As someone whose keen insights have been so indispensable to so many U.S. presidents for so many years, on so many of the most pressing domestic and foreign policy issues of the day, Dr. Krauthammer has long been seen and valued by both political parties as someone whose expertise, and whose extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding on a wide range of issues, are invaluable. Today, especially on the topic of stem cells, Dr. Krauthammer’s analyses are particularly relevant not just because they come from someone who has been a prominent political advisor to U.S. presidents for nearly 40 years, but also because of Dr. Krauthammer’s accomplishments as a physician, as a medical researcher at one of the leading research hospitals in the world, and as a paraplegic. The current, new U.S. president, however, would seem to be the first U.S. president, ever, since prior to the Carter administration in the 1970s, who has chosen to ignore entirely what Dr. Krauthammer has to say.

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