Stem Cells, False Dilemmas, Straw Men, and Bandwagons

On March 9, 2009, President Obama signed an executive order allowing government funding for new lines of Embryonic Stem-Cell Research. In doing so, he reversed President Bush’s policy. That policy allowed current lines of research to continue while denying any government funding involving the destruction of new embryos. Many of us did then and continue now to see such destruction as the taking of human life.

Our President then painted a hopeful picture for the research. He spoke to its potential, “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.” With such great promise and peril, it would behoove the President when addressing the American people on this issue to echo God’s call in Isaiah, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).

Yet President Obama’s words upon the order’s issuance fell far short of such a call. His remarks were painful not simply because they presented a moral outlook destructive of human life. They proved excruciating because of the audacity with which he presented his conclusion. I use the word “presented” where I would normally have written “argued.” I do so intentionally, for President Obama’s defense of his decision was so logically weak and morally incoherent that “argued” simply does not work as a description. Logical fallacies permeated a speech whose grave matter demanded much greater seriousness.

First, President Obama repeatedly committed the logical fallacy of the False Dichotomy. This fallacy erroneously asserts two different claims to be mutually exclusive. For example: If I cheer for the Kentucky Wildcats, I cannot then root for the Minnesota Twins. President Obama makes just such a case when he says, “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 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.” The debate is not nor has ever been about facts vs. ideology. In fact, the two are never mutually exclusive: ideologies frame facts and facts inform ideologies. The real debate is over the disputed fact of life, specifically when it begins. One ideology is built upon it beginning at conception; the other, well, sometime later.

In addition, President Obama himself refuses to allow complete freedom and open inquiry in science. He explicitly stated, “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.” Bravo, Mr. President. Just do not accuse those of us who also set moral boundaries on scientific research of practicing “ideology” simply because it differs from your own.

Our President implicitly continues this fallacious line reasoning when he says, “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….When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed.” The implicit argument declares that either government involves itself or discoveries go unmade. Such a statement is simply untrue. I do not recall Benjamin Franklin’s government subsidies in his numerous creative endeavors.

What makes President Obama’s repeated use of this fallacy almost comical is that he falsely accuses his opponents of the same error. He says, “our government [under President Bush] has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” This accusation only makes sense if President Obama ignores both his own argument against cloning and the very heart of the debate: are we destroying life? If he stands strongly against the callous manufacturing of clone-life, can he not at least acknowledge the logical consistency of those who believe destroying life is both immoral and un-sound science?

This last quote brings up the second major class of fallacies permeating President Obama’s remarks: the Straw Man. The Straw Man argument is an argument that does not exist. It does not exist, in part, because it is so weak and thus so easily defeated. When Obama speaks of the false choice the government “has forced” upon us, he attacks an argument none of his opponents are making. None of the opposition attacks science as immoral in itself. We have nothing against advances in science per se, especially those that further the health of fellow human beings. We would all love to see men and women with spinal cord injuries able to walk again. We would all rejoice to witness, “Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease” cured or massively curtailed.

But science that creates human life in order to destroy it cannot nor will ever be “sound science.” It will, however, always be against the “moral values” of our Founding and of Scripture. In defining the parameters of the debate as he does, President Obama both attacks a non-existent position and continues to recklessly avoid the very heart of the debate over human life.

The third and final fallacy encountered in Obama’s argument is the Bandwagon Fallacy. He states, “The majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research.” The simple answer to this question would be another question: So what? Just because a majority of people say a proposition is right does not make it right. Further, on what basis do we accept public opinion as possessing any authority? We base it upon the claim that all men are created equal and endowed by God with the right to life and liberty. Man’s equality and requisite rights form the basis upon which a representative government is formed. Therefore, just as public opinion could never decide the rightness of slavery (because it undermined the very justification for the people to make any decision), so it cannot determine the morality of this method of research. Justice determines and constrains the people’s power; the people do not determine justice. (It should also be noted that addition to its error in argumentation, the claim itself is highly questionable. A significant chunk of the American public remains strongly against destroying human embryos, more than enough to deny a firm “consensus” of any kind.)

Overall, President Obama’s remarks proved as logically sloppy as they were morally reprehensible. We as Christians should take heed. As we seek to live and speak the Gospel, let us not only speak what is true and good but always seek clarity and consistency of argument in so doing. Further, let us remember the lives affected by this decision. May God work to implant a greater love of Him and of humanity – from conception to the grave – in our President’s heart as well as our own.

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