Missed Opportunity By Obama

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When Barack Obama announced his reversal of George Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research I was wondering if Nancy Reagan would be invited. The political benefits of doing this were obvious. When she wasn’t invited I guessed that this might be because her health wouldn’t permit her to attend. From an interview in Vanity Fair it now looks like this was a missed opportunity for Obama:

She feels President Obama missed an opportunity when he did not invite her to the ceremony announcing his reversal of Bush’s policy on embryonic-stem-cell research. “I would have gone, and you know I don’t like to travel,” she tells Colacello. “Politically it would have been a good thing for him to do. Oh, well, nobody’s perfect. He called and thanked me for working on it. But he could have gotten more mileage out of it.”

Defying The Vatican

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I had thought that diplomatic disputes with the Vatican were more something out of The Tudors than the modern world. To the Vatican Caroline Kennedy might as well be Anne Boleyn. Her prospects of being appointed ambassador to the Vatican are not doing any better than her previously considered appointment to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. The Telegraph reports that the Vatican has blocked a possible appointment as ambassador due to her support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

Not being an expert in such diplomatic matters, this raises a number of questions in my mind. I’m aware of cases of diplomats being recalled because of alleged infractions such as espionage. Is it common for nations to block ambassadors who do not share their beliefs? The Vatican might not like it, but support for both abortion and embryonic stem cell research is the position of the Obama administration and both are legal in this country. What if the Vatican were to also demand an ambassador who believes in creationism instead of evolution?

What of other areas where countries disagree with the views of appointed ambassadors? Do Muslim nations object to non-Muslim ambassadors from the west?  Should we go along if one were to insist that we only appoint an ambassador who opposes the existence of Israel?

During the cold war it would have been ludicrous for Communist nations to reject western ambassadors who did not support Communism. Imagine if the Chinese had refused overtures from Richard Nixon to begin diplomatic relations because Nixon and his potential ambassadors were not Maoists.

My suspicion is that this is primarily an issue for the Vatican and not for most other countries. I wonder how they handle ambassadors from other countries. Do they scrutinize the religious beliefs of ambassadors from Muslim countries? What did they do with ambassadors from Communist countries which officially supported atheism and opposed any free expression of religion?

There are many practical considerations and the Obama administration might find it necessary to find an ambassador who is acceptable to them both for diplomatic reasons and out of concern for domestic politics. My gut feeling (which I understand should not necessarily be followed by those actually in power) would be to continue to stand for principle and appoint ambassadors who share our values of respecting a woman’s right to control her own body and support for scientific progress, even if the Vatican opposes our values.

While I understand that there might be reasons for compromise, personally I see no more reason why we should appoint an ambassador to the Vatican who opposes our values than we should be forced to appoint an ambassador to a middle east Muslim country who opposes the existence of Israel or to a socialist country who supports free market principles. Shouldn’t the purpose of an ambassador be to represent our views and keep open lines of communication, not to echo the views of the host nation?

Conservative Distortion on Stem Cell Research

There’s more right wing nonsense froma right wing site which has been repeated by the usual suspects in the rightwing blogosphere today with regards to Obama’s policies on stem cell research. It is not really worth reading or discussing, but if you have encountered it and are interested in the facts Kevin Keith has reviewed this at Sufficient Scruples and Lean Left.

Obama Lifts Ban on Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The long awaited for executive orders came earlier today and, after eight years of quasi-theocratic rule, the United States is now fully prepared to enter the twenty-first century.  One of the most outrageous policies of the religious right, restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research, has been lifted and the United States government has firmly stated its intention of basing scientific policy on actual science. It is regrettable that such a policy even needs to be announced.

Barack Obama began his statement with a discussion of stem cell research:

Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.

At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. To regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair. To spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles. To treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them.

But that potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit – and from a government willing to support that work. From life-saving vaccines, to pioneering cancer treatments, to the sequencing of the human genome – that is the story of scientific progress in America. When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.

But in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

After further discussion of stem cell research, Obama discussed his Presidential Memorandum to restore scientific integrity to the policies of the United States government:

This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

By doing this, we will ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.

That is why today, I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.

It might be years before we fully see the benefits of embryonic stem cell research. In addition to the expected benefits of funding embryonic stem cell research, there are also downsides. It appears that approval of such funding can cause (or actually exacerbate pre-existing) insanity. That is the only explanation for this reaction by Glenn Beck:

BECK: So here you have Barack Obama going in and spending the money on embryonic stem cell research, and then some, fundamentally changing – remember, those great progressive doctors are the ones who brought us Eugenics. It was the progressive movement and it science. Let’s put science truly in her place. If evolution is right, why don’t we just help out evolution? That was the idea. And sane people agreed with it!

And it was from America. Progressive movement in America. Eugenics. In case you don’t know what Eugenics led us to: the Final Solution. A master race! A perfect person. …. The stuff that we are facing is absolutely frightening. So I guess I have to put my name on yes, I hope Barack Obama fails. But I just want his policies to fail; I want America to wake up.

Of course stem cell research is not at all about eugenics or developing the master race. Fortunately not all Republicans have been driven to insanity by stem cell research. Here are some other responses:

FORMER FIRST LADY NANCY REAGAN: “I’m very grateful that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward. I urge researchers to make use of the opportunities that are available to them, and to do all they can to fulfill the promise that stem cell research offers. Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases — and soon. As I’ve said before, time is short, and life is precious.

CA GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: “President Obama’s executive order is a huge win for the millions of people who suffer from spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and many other illnesses. Californians were the first in the nation to support and fund embryonic stem cell research and we are big believers in the power of this revolutionary science to not only improve but to save lives. Because of the federal ban, Californians world-renown research facilities have had to have separate areas for the federally-funded and the non-federally funded programs, causing duplicative efforts. I applaud President Obama for removing this barrier which allows California to maximize critical research funding so we can continue to lead the world in stem cell research.”

Obama To Lift Bush’s Restrictions on Stem Cell Research

Obama will finally be removing George Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The good news is reported in The Washington Post:

President Obama is planning to sign an executive order on Monday rolling back restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, according to sources close to the issue.

Although the exact wording of the order has not been revealed, the White House plans an 11 a.m. ceremony to sign the order repealing one of the most controversial steps taken by his predecessor, fulfilling one of Obama’s eagerly anticipated campaign promises.

The move, long sought by scientists and patient advocates and opposed by religious groups, would enable the National Institutes of Health to consider requests from scientists to study hundreds of lines of cells that have been developed since the limitations were put in place — lines that scientists and patient advocate say hold great hope for leading to cures for a host of major ailments.

I don’t know if Obama will be able to fix the economy. He might even get bogged down in Iraq. Regardless of his success in other areas, here is at least one area where there we see solid evidence that it was worthwhile voting for Obama. This is just one area where Obama differs from his predecessor in respecting science and respecting separation of church and state. No longer will we be subjected to religious fanatics dictating to scientists and health care professionals what can be done purely based upon their religious beliefs.

Scientists and Even Some Republicans Urging Lifting of Stem Cell Restrictions

Obama has only been in office for one month and I know he has been busy, but perhaps he could take a few minutes and issue an executive order to overturn George Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Scientists are eagerly awaiting this move. Even a group of moderate Republicans have written Obama requesting this.

There was speculation that Obama would issue an executive order overturning these restrictions upon taking office along with several other orders reversing policies of the Bush administration. Obama has said he would prefer to have this action taken by Congress.

I don’t really care whether Congress passes such legislation or Obama accomplishes this by executive order. If Congress was ready to act there would be no reason for an executive order. Sometimes when you want something done it is just easier and quicker to do it yourself. If Congress isn’t acting yet, there’s no reason for Obama to wait any longer to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

Michael Steele, Nazi Doctors, Stem Cell Research, and Abortion

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I’ve written many posts recently predicting that if the social conservatives continue to dominate the Republican Party they will remain a regional party of the south and Mormon-belt of the west (currently their only safe states), or possibly go the way of the Whigs. Many Republicans appear to understand the problems they face and are seeking to change the look of the GOP. One move in that direction is the election of Michael Steele as the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Steele is a pro-life conservative, opposing abortion even in case of rape and incest. This is hardly a radical change, but many observers such as Marc Ambinder do see this as meaningful:

Even more than race, even as Steele lauded the party’s conservative members, his election marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party. Steele, pro-life, has worked with moderate Republicans all of his life, although he did his best during the campaign to minimize those ties. If he reverts to form, it means that the RNC has just selected a chairman who will not prioritize social issues above economic issues.  When people speak of broadening the party’s geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean that the party needs to welcome more moderates; needs to be more forgiving of departures from orthodoxy; need to be less antagonistic to pro-choicers and gays.

The question is whether this will be enough. Even if they don’t make restriction of abortion rights and discrimination against gays their primary issues, a party which still advocates such positions will remain an unacceptable choice.

Steele might be more moderate than some Republicans running around but, considering how extreme the GOP has become in recent years, this leaves room for someone to still be a right wing extremist even if they are not the most reactionary person in the room.

Ben Smith received the Maryland Democratic Party’s opposition research book from Michael Steele’s 2006 race for Senate (full book in pdf form here). Smith points out this item:

While speaking to the Baltimore Jewish Council, Michael Steele compared doctors conducting stem cell research to Nazis performing human experiments during the Holocaust: “You of all folks know what happens when people decide to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool.” [Associated Press, 2/10/06]

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Steele reportedly changed his position after he said the above and began to support embryonic stem cell research. His views are also contradictory with regards to banning gay marriage at the federal level or leaving this to the states to ban (with banning at some level apparently being the only options on the table for him):

Steele: Gay Marriage Is A State Issue, But Supports A Federal Amendment. In August 2004, the Washington Times reported that, “[Steele] said each state should decide the issue, but added that he supports President Bush’s efforts in calling for a constitutional amendment to define marriage,  because some states are unwilling to act.” [Washington Times, 8/26/04]

Stressing economic issues as opposed to social issues would be an improvement for the GOP, but only if they can drop their social conservative positions as easily as Steele dropped his objection to embryonic stem cell research. Some believe that conservatives who are so out of touch with reality to equate abortion with “baby killing” can never drop their opposition to abortion. If Steele can drop his objection to stem cell research after equating it with Nazi doctors and the Holocaust, then perhaps other Republicans can moderate their views on abortion.

FDA Approves First Human Trials on Treatment From Stem Cell Research

It will be a while before we see practical results from embryonic stem cell research, and the likelihood of this will increase with the anticipated end of  George Bush’s ban on federal funding. The FDA has now approved the first human trials on a treatment developed from embryonic stem cell research. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a watershed moment for one of the most contentious areas of science and American politics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for the first-ever human trial of a medical treatment derived from embryonic stem cells.

Geron Corp., a Menlo Park, Calif., biotechnology company, is expected to announce Friday that it received a green light from the agency to mount a study of its stem-cell treatment for spinal cord injuries in up to 10 patients. The announcement caps more than a decade of advances in the company’s labs and comes on the cusp of a widely expected shift in U.S. policy toward support of embryonic stem-cell research after years of official opposition.

“This is the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics,” said Thomas B. Okarma, Geron’s president and chief executive officer. The hope that stem-cell therapy will repair and regenerate diseased organs and tissue “goes beyond what pills and scalpels can ever do.”

Limits on stem-cell research, which prevented federal funding and were imposed by Congress and former President George W. Bush for ethical and religious reasons, have had a chilling effect on both academic and corporate research involving such cells. Proponents of stem-cell research say restrictions have delayed development of promising new treatments, while critics contend that harvesting stem cells from embryos destroys human life.

A Theological Defense of Stem Cell Research

Religious views are not a sufficient justification for public policy, such as restricting government funding of embryonic stem cell research, but should anyone be interested, Frank Cocozzelli has addressed the topic from a theological perspective. He responds to some of the views expressed by Rick Warren.

The Republican Party and Ideas

Late last week an internal Republican National Committee memo leaked out which shows that at least the Republican leadership acknowledges a problem I have been writing about for a while–the lack of ideas being promoted by the party. As Steve Benen points out, admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery. The memo states:

Republicans have grown accustomed to having our party recognized as the “Party of Ideas,” but we must acknowledge that many Americans today believe the party is stale and does not deserve that label. This is not a critique of our principles of a strong national defense, growth-focused economics, constitutionally-limited government, and a defense of traditional values. Rather, it is a reflection that we have not used our principles to provide solutions to the kitchen table concerns of middle-class America.

The Republicans lost because the Democrats were felt to have the better ideas on virtually all issues by a majority of Americans. Republicans found in 2008 that they could no longer win by relying on distorting the views of their opponents and raising meaningless attacks. False claims that Obama planned to redistribute the wealth in a Marxist sense or planned a government takeover of health care no longer fooled the voters. Attacks based upon discredited attacks such as Obama’s connections to William Ayers and Reverend Wright, and appeals to anti-intellectualism from Sarah Palin, were no longer effective. Republicans have become experts at raising McCarthyist style attacks but in the process began to ignore providing actual reasons to vote for them.

After the election The Economist summed up this problem by referring to the Republicans as a Ship of Fools. The economic collapse strengthened the conventional wisdom that the Democratic Party is stronger on economic issues, making most other issues irrelevant in the 2008 election. Even if other issues were considered, they did not work for the Republicans. At one time the Republicans were felt to be stronger on advocating a sound foreign policy. Now Republicans are the party advocating a reckless foreign policy while Democrats have taken the center. Republican denial of science and support for the social policies of the religious right are costing them the support of young voters as well as many affluent and educated Americans who have voted Republican in the past. Many voters no longer see the Republicans as either the party of ideas or of values, and are now voting Democratic based upon both values and self-interest.

The problem for the Republicans is not only that they lack ideas but that they have the wrong ideas. For years the Republican establishment took advantage of votes from the religious right but privately referred to them as the nuts. Now “the nuts” appear to control the party. For a moment it appeared that the Republicans might be turning towards moderation in nominating John McCain, but instead McCain increasingly adopted the positions of the extremists in the party. Republican voters see Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee as their two preferred choices for 2012. Red State has announced a war against Republicans who have not supported Palin. David Frum might be willing to abandon Sarah Palin, but still sees the mindset of Joe the Plumber as the future of the GOP.

The Republicans now face the dilemma that their strongest support comes from the religious right but these views will probably prevent them from being a majority party in states outside of the deep south and a handful of sparsely populated western states. A growing number of principled conservatives and libertarians who do not accept the views of the religious right are increasingly supporting Democratic candidates. There continue to be supporters of other ideas in the part, but their role is becoming increasingly trivial. William Kristol has recently admitted that conservative talk of small government has little relationship to the reality of Republican rule. Perhaps now that they don’t feel obligated to back the policies of George Bush, more Republicans will be consistent in backing civil liberties and restrictions upon the power of government.

It is hard to see any fate for the Republicans other than going the way of the Whigs if they don’t open themselves up to modern thought. A party which includes members who believe in creationism has no place in the twenty-first century. There have been some voices in the Republican Party which has resisted its current extremist tendencies.  Colin Powell recently warned Republicans against listening to Rush Limbaugh. It is also necessary for them to reject the entire fantasy world of conservative talk radio. In recent weeks I’ve also note that some Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christine Todd Whitman, along with columnists such as Kathleen Parker, have taken a more moderate stand than is common in the Republican Party, but I’ve also noted how resistant many Republicans are to moderating their views.

The mind set of the religious right, and why they are unlikely to moderate their views, can be seen in this response to my writings supporting modernization of Republican viewsin this response by Robert Stacy McCain at The American Spectator:

The real question isn’t the influence of Dobson, but rather the influence of God, and if you’re waiting for God to moderate his views, I suspect you’ll be waiting a long time.

I discussed the absurdity of this argument, along with the importance of a secular government as wisely advocated by the Founding Fathers, in this post last week. This concept is an important part of our heritage, and is necessary to allow all to worship, or not worship, as they choose. While this view is clear in the writings of the Founding Fathers, along with many court decisions, the religious right has been promoting a revisionist history which denies this. Although many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, who had a radically different view of the role of God in human affairs compared to Christianity, many Republicans, including the supposedly moderate John McCain, also falsely claim that the United States was founded as a Christian country.

As I’ve discussed in many previous posts, such as here, religious beliefs do not provide sufficient justification under our system of government for public policy decisions. I’ve also noted that Barack Obama has expressed similar views. This presents the fundamental difference in belief between supporters of modernity and the religious right. The real issue is not one of life style as many liberals live an essentially conservative life style, but a question of whether one believes the power of government should be used to impose life style choices upon others.

As Republicans search for ideas they might look back to promises of Ronald Reagan to get government off our backs. Instead of applying this solely to allowing business to go unregulated, they must reconsider their views on reproductive rights, embryonic stem cell research, end of life decisions as in the Terri Schiavo case, same-sex marriage, and other issues where personal morality should not be regulated by government. Barry Goldwater rejected the religious right and in his later years considered himself a liberal. If Republicans want to provide a viable alternateve to the Democratic Party, the Republicans should follow Barry Goldwater’s lead on this matter and reject the influence of the religious right. They cannot develop and promote good ideas until they face reality and reject the bad ideas which have destroyed their party.