A bit of skin is all it took to transform one of the most controversial ethical issues of our time.
Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, working independently, are the first to show how embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human skin cells, without first creating or destroying human embryos. The reprogrammed cells, the scientists report, appear to behave very much like human embryonic stem cells but were called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” meaning cells that can change into many different types.
“By any means we test them they are the same as embryonic stem cells,” Dr. Thomson says.
For the past half decade, embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has been a hotly debated topic. Because of this I suspect that there will be four main–though potentially overlapping–groups that will react strongly to this story.
The first are those who care about the science. They will be awed by one of the most monumental discoveries of the decade. As Yuval Levin notes, this finding “will revolutionize cell biology, and get a lot of PhD level textbooks thrown in the garbage today.”
The second are those who believed the hype about ESCR leading to cures. They will initially be elated — and then dejected when they find that the real potential for ESCR is basic research and that any therapeutic uses are likely to come decades from now.
The third are those who have a financial stake in current ESCR research. They will attempt to downplay the significance of this finding. According to a recent report put out by the Rockefeller Institute, to date about $1.7 billion has poured into ESCR and SCNT from philanthropic sources. This doesn’t include the hundreds of millions granted annually by the states for cloning and ESCR experiments. There are too many people making money off embryo-destructive research to give it up without a fight.
The last two categories are comprised of people who were primarily concerned about the ethical implications. One group was honestly concerned about the moral issues surrounding ESCR and will be overjoyed that a solution to the problem has been found that has the potential to please all parties involved.
The last group is those who favor embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse (i.e., compassion for the sick) for denying the inherent dignity of humans in the embryonic stage of life. I agree with Joseph Bottum, who says in First Things:
I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.
ESCR has always been as much of a Rorschach test as a field of medical research. Whether a tool for unlocking of scientific knowledge, a cure for an ailing family member, a deep reservoir for government funding, a struggle for human dignity, or a stalking-horse for abortion politics, people look as the issue and see what they want to see. We’ll all look at this finding and see something different. Hopefully, it will help us all see the issue a bit more clearly.