One of the easiest areas where the administration of President Barack Obama can seek to distinguish itself from that of his Republican predecessor will be in the intersection of policy and science. The most obvious shift was over climate change. A less dramatic one was Mr Obama’s recent decision to lift George W. Bush’s ban on US federal funding for research on new stem cell lines. Stem cells are ‘baby’ human cells that have not specialised into heart or brain cells and were seen as crucial to research on genetic ailments. Because stem cells are drawn from human embryos, this research ran afoul of conservative Christian beliefs that this was the equivalent of murder.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Obama’s decision was quickly denounced by the Vatican. However, nothing in politics, even when it comes to science, is ever black and white. Mr Bush did not stop funding for 60 existing stem cell lines. He also did not stop private or state governments from putting up money. Mr Obama, on the other hand, must have known that funding for stem cell research is waning. One reason is the economic downturn. The other is that scientists are starting to find other types of cells, like adult skin cells, which hold more promise for genetic research. His action was as much symbolic as it was scientific.
However, Mr Obama has insisted on maintaining a ban on human cloning for reproduction. This replicates, in principle, the same error made by Mr Bush. Namely, the belief that the science of reproduction is a matter of government fiat rather than individual choice. While human cloning may never be technically feasible, there is no obvious reason why research in this field should be banned. Ultimately, it is a little more than another way to have a child. Identical twins are natural clones. Biology has also concluded that because environment plays an important part in shaping the way genes express themselves, a clone is unlikely to share the personality, or even the appearance, of its source. Bans are particularly foolish. Recombinant DNA technology is relatively inexpensive. All that will happen is that cloning will be driven underground or to offshore centres around the world to societies which are less queasy about the science. The Boys From Brazil, a novel about an attempt to clone Adolf Hitler, was good Hollywood but it was poor science. And it is even sillier as a policy.