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Stem Cell Vindication

November 30th, 2007
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By Charles Krauthammer  November 30,
2007

"If human embryonic stem cell
research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not
thought about it enough."

– James A.
Thomson

A decade ago, Thomson was the first
to isolate human embryonic stem cells. Last week, he (and Japan’s Shinya
Yamanaka) announced one of the great scientific breakthroughs since the
discovery of DNA: an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem
cells.

Even a scientist who cares not a
whit about the morality of embryo destruction will adopt this technique because
it is so simple and powerful. The embryonic stem cell debate is
over.

Which allows a bit of reflection on
the storm that has raged ever since the August 2001 announcement of President
Bush’s stem cell policy. The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president — so
vilified for a moral stance — been so thoroughly vindicated.

Why? Precisely because he took a
moral stance. Precisely because, to borrow Thomson’s phrase, Bush was made "a
little bit uncomfortable" by the implications of embryonic experimentation.
Precisely because he therefore decided that some moral line had to be
drawn.

In doing so, he invited unrelenting
demagoguery by an unholy trinity of Democratic politicians, research scientists
and patient advocates who insisted that anyone who would put any restriction on
the destruction of human embryos could be acting only for reasons of cynical
politics rooted in dogmatic religiosity — a "moral ayatollah," as Sen. Tom
Harkin so scornfully put it.

Bush got it right. Not because he
necessarily drew the line in the right place. I have long argued that a better
line might have been drawn — between using doomed and discarded
fertility-clinic embryos created originally for reproduction (permitted) and
using embryos created solely to be disassembled for their parts, as in research
cloning (prohibited). But what Bush got right was to insist, in the face of
enormous popular and scientific opposition, on drawing a line at all, on
requiring that scientific imperative be balanced by moral
considerations.

History will look at Bush’s 2001
speech and be surprised how balanced and measured it was, how much respect it
gave to the other side. Read it. Here was a presidential policy pronouncement
that so finely and fairly drew out the case for both sides that until the final
few minutes of his speech, you had no idea where the policy would end
up.

Bush finally ended up doing nothing
to hamper private research into embryonic stem cells and pledging federal monies
to support the study of existing stem cell lines — but refusing federal monies
for research on stem cell lines produced by newly destroyed
embryos.

The president’s policy recognized
that this might cause problems. The existing lines might dry up, prove
inadequate or become corrupted. Bush therefore appointed a President’s Council
on Bioethics to oversee ongoing stem cell research and evaluate how his
restrictions were affecting research and what means might be found to circumvent
ethical obstacles.

More vilification. The mainstream
media and the scientific establishment saw this as a smoke screen to cover his
fundamentalist, obscurantist, anti-scientific — the list of adjectives was
endless — tracks. "Some observers," wrote The Post’s Rick Weiss, "say the
president’s council is politically stacked."

I sat on the council for five years.
It was one of the most ideologically balanced bioethics commissions in the
history of this country. It consisted of scientists, ethicists, theologians,
philosophers, physicians — and others (James Q. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama and me
among them) of a secular bent not committed to one school or the
other.

That balance of composition was
reflected in the balance in the reports issued by the council — documents of
sophistication and nuance that reflected the divisions both within the council
and within the nation in a way that respectfully presented the views of all
sides. One recommendation was to support research that might produce stem cells
through "de-differentiation" of adult cells, thus bypassing the creation of
human embryos.

That Holy Grail has now been
achieved. Largely because of the genius of Thomson and Yamanaka. And also
because of the astonishing good fortune that nature requires only four injected
genes to turn an ordinary adult skin cell into a magical stem cell that can
become bone or brain or heart or liver.

But for one more reason as well.
Because the moral disquiet that James Thomson always felt — and that George
Bush forced the country to confront — helped lead him and others to find some
ethically neutral way to produce stem cells. Providence then saw to it that the
technique be so elegant and beautiful that scientific reasons alone will now
incline even the most willful researchers to leave the human embryo
alone.

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Categories: Sanctity of Life
  1. Conibear Trapp
    November 30th, 2007 at 08:27 | #1

    Forgive me, Pastor, for raining on your parade. When this breakthrough was first announced in the news last week, it came up for discussion at our Thanksgiving gathering. Someone said that this should put to rest the issue of embryonic stem cell research. I told those gathered that it most certainly would not end that debate. This is because what has driven this issue is the justification of abortion, not the science behind, or the medical potential of, stem cell research. Adult stem cell therapies have proven themselves viable for quite some time while embryonic stem cells have failed whenever tried. This, alone, should have been enough to rid our society of this evil. Nevertheless, it continued.
    These were my comments Thanksgiving day. Lo, and behold, the very next day I read a media report where Senator Harkin (an embarrassment to we conservatives here in Iowa) said that we should not abandon embryonic stem cell research even in light of this new discovery. Surprise, surprise, surprise. The politics of abortion continue.

  2. wcwirla
    November 30th, 2007 at 09:09 | #2

    I rejoice over the scientific breakthrough which would make embryonic stem cells a thing of the past. I disagree that this finding is a “vindication” for President Bush. Mr. Bush took a moral/ethical stand, not a scientific one. He would have been vindicated had everyone on both sides of the aisle stood up and agreed that the use of embryonic stem cells is immoral and unethical. These scientists have simply demonstrated that it may be unnecessary. As the commentator above indicated, the politics of embryonic stem cell research, driven by its ties to the abortion issue, is not the same as its science or ethics.

  3. Mike Baker
    November 30th, 2007 at 10:42 | #3

    Agreed. It always amazes me that often universal principles of science and ethics are totally ignored when it comes to matters of science and ethics.

  4. Mark in Spokane
    November 30th, 2007 at 15:49 | #4

    One point of disagreement with the article’s last point: this new method of creating stem cells is not “morally neutral,” it is in fact morally good. This will enable valuable medical research to continue without the killing of unborn human beings. That is a good thing, not a morally neutral thing!

  5. Karen
    December 1st, 2007 at 11:24 | #5

    I would just like to comment that the stem cells with-drawn from the joined cells in a petre dish, are just that…JOINED CELLS! The stem cells are with-drawn at two days after joining. There is no embryo present in those cells. Why is that so harmful? They are just cells! There is NO cartilage like human formation at that point, again….just cells.

  6. Mike Baker
    December 3rd, 2007 at 21:03 | #6

    …living cells that were created by conception.
    Life remains a mysterious process that no scientist can artificially create without depending heavily on natural processes. Unborn infants are not mere tissue. They are not some form of carnal property that can be experimented on and disposed of as people see fit.

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