A decade ago, the Left declared President Bush anti-science for his restrictions on the use of new federally funded fetal-stem-cell lines. They claimed that Bush hated science, that fetal stem cells were the wave of the future, that Bush was a “moral ayatollah,” in the words of Senator Tom Harkin (D., Iowa). Democrats ran on the promise that if Bush were thrown out of office in 2004, they’d make Christopher Reeve walk again using fetal stem cells. But it turned out that fetal stem cells were unnecessary to scientific research — scientists came up with an embryo-free process to produce genetically matched stem cells. As Charles Krauthammer, no religious fundamentalist, wrote at the time: “Rarely has a president — so vilified for a moral stance — been so thoroughly vindicated. Why? Precisely because he took a moral stance.”
So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.
The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal which, with our weak powers, we can reach only very inadequately, but which gives a sure foundation to our aspirations and valuations. If one were to take that goal out of its religious form and look merely at its purely human side, one might state it perhaps thus: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind.