If you hadn't noticed, I generally try to steer clear of "the big two" on my blog—religion (which I differentiate from my personal thoughts/convictions with the "Religion" and "Faith" tags) and politics. And while what I'm going to write about sounds like politics and religion, my post isn't really about them, hence the title. Although in this case they are at least roommates.
In case you missed it, stem cell researchers finally were able to turn skin cells into stem cells and then cultivate them into a variety of other mature cells. Now, if you've been up on this stuff, it isn't really new news, per say. Back in 2005, the Washington Post reported:
Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.
But the stem cell issue has been a hot button issue since Bush vetoed creating new embryo-destructive stem cell lines using government money in 2001. His decision had two purposes: to stop what he felt was ethically wrong (destroying embryos), but also to pursue that which he believed in, the medical promises of stem cells. Now, six years later, we can see both of those goals realized.
It is interesting me to see that it was only because of Bush's ethical convictions that the second possibly has happened so quickly. If he was to have signed off on full embryonic stem cell research, that is most certainly where most of the work and money would have gone. It was the highest profile segment of the science, after all, and the one that (at the time) showed the greatest promise. And as there is a limited amount of man hours and money to go around, skin cell research would have invariably been set back.
So here we have an example of how an ethical decision impacts both the science and the politics of a potentially life-changing discovery for the positive. And because Bush, and many others, refused to accept embryonic stem cell research as the only way, an alternate discovery was made that is not only bereft of the moral issues, but is actually easier to implement scientifically.
I liken it to those who pursue renewable resources because they believe that depending on things like fossil fuels is just not an option. It's the same idea applied to a different issue.
I came across a piece of transcript from a discussion on a "Special Report Panel" the other night about this very topic that got me thinking about all this.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: This is one of the great discoveries of the last half century. This is the holy grail of stem cell research, and the reason is that it is so elegant and simple.
And that's why the old technique, the one that has the arguments about the use and destruction of embryos, the one that has been held up because of that, it will become rapidly obsolete.
And the reason is under the old technique, it was very complicated. You had to get eggs out of a woman, which you had to induce her with hormones. You had to have a surgical procedure to remove eggs — not dangerous but complicated, expensive.
Then you have to remove the nucleus of that egg, take a stem cell, take a skin cell from someone, inject the nucleus. You grow a small embryo, you detach stem cells, and you grow it — very complicated.
Here, what you do is you take a skin cell, you inject four genes, and it becomes presto, by magic, an embryonic stem cell, which can become skin or bone or liver or brain, or anything. It's truly a miraculous discovery.
And the irony is that the research this research was undertaken, part of it is, and the researchers in Wisconsin who collaborated on this and who did an independent study, were funded by the Bush administration's National Institutes of Health.
Funding the research, because the president imposed an ethical constraint on embryonic stem cell research —
BRIT HUME: And then paid for these guys to go out and look for alternatives.
KRAUTHAMMER: Which ended up being not only more ethical, but more elegant, and simple, and reliable. And it's going to be the new wave, and the old issue will be abolished. That ethical debate will be a moot issue in a couple of years.
FRED BARNES: [Embryonic stem cell research] was morally objectionable to a lot of people, including myself. And if you can get around that and you don't have to do that, then I think you are ahead of the game.
President Bush was called "anti-science," remember that? He was called "anti-science" because he said let's try this other track.
Remember, he funded a number of lines of embryonic stem cells. He didn't want to expand the funding into the future, but it was more than anybody else had funded it. And now this comes along.
HUME: As a result of research that his government supported?
And, remember, Congress barred — was asked to fund research into this alternative embryonic stem cell research, and Congress voted it down.
The people who were doing this with embryonic stem cells are not going to want to give it up. There being funded for that. This is what they have been pursuing as scientists, and it is going to be hard for them to accept the fact that they've been leap-frogged here.
And, secondly, if you say that it's morally objectionable to kill these embryos, you're also saying abortion is morally objectionable.
HUME: You think that is at the root of this?
BARNES: I think that is at the root of this.
KRAUTHAMMER: It ended up as a surrogate debate about abortion. I was on the president's council of bioethics, and we felt as if we were simply re-treading in a different forum the abortion debate, which made it intractable. But the reason all of this, I think, is going to go away is because there are a thousand labs today that could start on this new technique because it's so simple. There aren't a lot that could do the old technique, which involves all those complicated steps.
So if you're a research lab, they will be jumping in now to try to reproduce this. And I think it will yield the results which will be really salutary.
What strikes me is the contrast between the moral arguments for embryonic protection verses those in favor of "pursue anything, at any cost, that might possibly advance science". There are reasons why we have ethical guidelines. And the value of them isn't just in what we may stop from happening, but the better solutions which may come from following our ethics.
To add an ironic end to this tale, some of the very reporters that heralded stem cells as a modern miracle are now finally realizing/admitting (as some scientists have been saying all along) that the hype they've helped foster has been much bigger than the potential applications.