At Public Discourse, Sherif Girgis asked the prominent liberal bioethicist Arthur Caplan about the debate that flared up in 2001 when President Bush banned federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research. Caplan suggests that there were attacks on science, but not necessarily from Bush:
Leading up to 9/11, public funding of stem-cell research in which human embryos are destroyed was a huge issue in American politics, and it deeply polarized the country. There was a very long and public deliberation by the president. To some degree it antagonized some people in the scientific community against some people in the religious community. Was it worth the polarization, the social and political costs?
[Arthur Caplan]: …Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times myself, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research. But this notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem-cell research funded was just ludicrous. Just simply silly…. Yes, those saying it had to know it at the time. The scientists had to have known that.
Here’s an assertion that you hear all the time: “Stem-cell research will help Alzheimer’s.” But stem cell research has no possibility of helping Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a gunk-up-the-brain disease, where every cell is affected. You can’t fix it by any sort of stem cell research. Model it? Maybe. Cure it? Never.
Princeton bioethicist Robert George reflects on that clash 10 years ago:
Opponents of embryo-destructive research have long contended that many of its supporters, including prominent scientists and politicians, were saying things they knew at the time to be false in order to achieve their political goal of embryonic stem-cell research funding. They were callously elevating the hopes of suffering people and their families for political reasons. But, of course, the critics were dismissed as “religious fanatics” and tools of a “Republican war on science.”
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