The Embryo Troubles of Obama’s Top Doctor

Many are pointing to Obama’s pick of an Evangelical to head the National Institutes of Health as a sign of the president's willingness to reach out to those with differing viewpoints. But his pick holds conflicted views about the human embryo and will oversee a department that, under new rules, is outsourcing the destruction of human life.

On July 8th, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Dr. Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health. In addition to being a world-class geneticist, Collins also has gained notoriety for his public profile as an unapologetic evangelical Christian. In 2006, Collins published, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In addition to offering various scientific arguments for the existence of God, the book also makes a case for the compatibility of Christian faith and science based on a model that Collins termed “BioLogos.” (Incidentally, Collins’s conception of Biologos bears a striking resemblance to Steven Jay Gould’s earlier articulation of NOMA—“non-overlapping magisteria.”) Since then, Collins has lauched a major philosophy of science education initiative through his BioLogos Foundation. The BioLogos Foundation promotes “the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.” Even a cursory review of the foundation’s website reveals Collins’s uncompromising commitment to evangelicalism’s characteristic Biblicism and to the truth of the Christian faith.

This is precisely what makes Collins’s likely appointment to be head of the NIH so troubling. Just prior to the announcement about Collins, the NIH published its final guidelines for the use of federal funds in human embryonic stem cell research. While the Dickey Amendment prohibits NIH funds from being used to derive stems cells from human embryos (hence destroying them), the newly published guidelines do permit the use of federal tax dollars for research on stem cell lines already derived from human embryos, provided that (within the restrictions outlined in the guidelines) the embryos have already been destroyed. In effect, the new guidelines provide an incentive to private research entities to obtain so-called “leftover” embryos from fertility clinics and derive stem cell lines from them in order to obtain NIH research dollars to study the derived lines.

Given his professed faith, one might naturally wonder how Collins can, in good conscience, oversee a government agency that is effectively outsourcing the destruction of human life. At a recent event sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Collins was asked about the new NIH guidelines. Collins had this to say:

Basically, what the president’s executive order said and what the NIH in its draft guidelines has now made more clear is that federal funds will be allowable, assuming these draft guidelines get finalized, for stem cell lines that were developed from leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. And in a way, this is not very radical because that’s what Bush said in August of 2001 when he became the first president to authorize federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Remember, it wasn’t allowed at all before his statement. But he said only lines that were developed before 9 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2001, could be used, which obviously seems like a bit of an arbitrary deadline.

Now Obama is saying, what about the 700 lines that have been developed since then, which are actually scientifically more useful? The early lines had problems. These new lines will now be allowed as well. Remember, though, that just means the funds will be allowed for the study of those lines, not for creating new ones. That is prevented by the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which people expect will probably remain there unless Congress decides to take it away. My bet is that they probably won’t, and I’m not sure that it’s necessary for them to do so in terms of supporting research. The use of private funds to develop new lines might be sufficient.

Collins’s comments here are remarkable on several different levels. To begin, it is unclear whether Collins has any moral qualms about the wanton destruction of innocent human life given his apparent optimism about the sufficiency of private funds for the doing the federal government’s dirty work. But even if one supposes that he’s not happy about it, his analysis of the difference between the Bush administration policy and the new Obama guidelines is mistaken at best, misleading at worst. For the August 9, 2001 deadline under the Bush administration was imposed precisely to take away the incentive for private entities to engage in more embryo destruction. Of course, as Collins’s remarks make clear, this did not prevent private entities from doing so. And apparently, they did so at least 700 times. (Of course, who knows how many embryos it actually took to get the 700 lines to which Collins refers!) And if the Obama guidelines were written so as to allow funding for these 700 lines and only these 700 lines, they would, in that respect, be similar to the Bush guidelines. But the new Obama guidelines do not limit the use of NIH funds exclusively to these existing, additional 700 lines.

Knowing this, Collins chose his words carefully when he said, “Remember, though, that just means the funds will be allowed for the study of those lines, not for creating new ones.” By the letter of the law, what Collins here claims is true. The new NIH guidelines do not permit the use of federal funds for creating new human embryonic stem cell lines. This is because, as Collins points out, such activity is prohibited by the Dickey amendment. Moreover, the guidelines do allow for the study of those 700 lines that have been produced since August 9, 2001. What Collins does not say, however, is that the new NIH guidelines also allow for federal funds to be used in studying new human embryonic stem cell lines that are created (by private entities, of course) beyond the 700 currently in existence. This represents a dramatic shift in policy from the previous Bush administration regulations. And Collins is doing nothing more than engaging in rhetorical subterfuge to suggest otherwise.

Perhaps this is because Collins is less than clear in his publicly stated convictions about the metaphysics and moral value of human life. In The Language of God, Collins included an appendix in which he explicitly dealt with the morality of human embryonic stem cell research. After casting doubt on whether human life begins at conception (see pg. 250), Collins seems to argue for the moral permissibility of using “leftover” IVF embryos for stem cell derivation. I say “seems” because the argument is as bizzarre as it is non-committal. Collins writes:

Many observers who are otherwise opposed to human embryo research have argued, however, that despite the likely ultimate destruction of excess embryos after IVF, the desire of a couple to have a child is such a strong moral good that it justifies the procedure. That may well be a defensible position, but if so, it challenges the principle that the inevitable destruction of human embryos should be avoided at all costs, no matter what the potential benefits.

Regrettably, Collins never explicitly states whether he believes the moral “challenges” that current IVF practices present to the principle that human life should be protected are sufficient to warrant embryo-destructive research. However, he goes on in the book to argue for a position that is as startling as it is ironic.

In a section of the appendix entitled, “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer is Fundamentally Different,” Collins argues that human “products” of SCNT are (or would be) fundamentally different from human embryos created with egg and sperm. So he concludes that while so-called “reproductive cloning” ought to be prohibited, “therapeutic cloning” represents the way forward. Collins writes, “I would argue that the immediate product of a skin cell and an enucleated egg cell fall short of the moral status of the union of sperm and egg” (pg. 256). The trouble with this view is that the “immediate product” of successful SCNT, just like the “immediate product” of the successful union of sperm and egg, is an embryonic member of the species. In the case of a human being, the embryo, whatever its origins, will, if permitted to live, develop by an internally directed process from the embryonic stage into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and ultimately into adulthood. A cloned human embryo, no less than a human embryo produced by the union of gametes, is an embryonic human. That is a matter of biological fact that Collins conveniently shuffles off stage. The moral implications are clear, and clearly contradict Collins’ conclusion: the embryo produced by cloning enjoys the same moral status, whatever one judges that to be, as the embryo produced the old-fashioned way.

This is ironic given Collins’s likely appointment to be head of the NIH. For while the new NIH guidelines explicitly permit funding for research on stem cell lines in which human embryos have already been destroyed, they also explicitly forbid funding for research on stem cell lines that have been produced by SCNT (see section V. part B). If Collins’s view were right (which, by the way, it’s not), then the new NIH guidelines have got it precisely backwards!

Collins needs to come clean. Either he upholds the dignity of human life or he doesn’t. If he does, and he accepts the nomination to head the NIH, then it seems that he is deeply compromised as a professing evangelical Christian. If he does not, then the evangelical community needs to know. For his appointment to this position has the potential to cause great harm in the way of moral confusion to many unsuspecting evangelicals as long as his views on nascent human life remain veiled behind a cloud of sophistical rhetoric.

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