"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." President Barack Obama
"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should... The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me." Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (the movie), 1993
Yes, we can. That was the mantra of the Obama candidacy, and so far, the guiding principle of his young administration. Yes we can cut the brake lines and burn rubber in a science muscle car unrestrained by moral caution, humility or photo radar. What could go wrong?
Yes we can farm human embryos for human adult spare parts. Yes we can. Yes we can. And yes, we will.
But should we? Despite the President's assurances that embryonic experimentation is good for America, there are plenty of doubters, and not just on the right. Republican Senator Sam Brownback framed the moral question well in a recent press release.
"The Administration's policy change does not answer the central question: Do human embryos, which are clearly alive, constitute a life or mere property? If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes." Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kansas
Science, cheered on by the President and our medical-industrial complex, would rather not consider Brownback's inconvenient question. If embryos are not mere property, science, and society, might just have to exercise self-restraint. "No we shouldn't" sounds like something our parents might have said. Worse, it's what the Bush administration said!
President Obama is being dishonest, or at least misleading, to claim that he is making possible "promising embryonic stem cell research." Sen. Brownback has the facts on his side when he points out that "After a decade of private and public research around the world, embryonic stem cell research... has yet to yield any clinical trials or any real-world successes..."
In fact, embryonic stem cells have proven far worse than ineffective they can be dangerous.
Adult stem cell research derives its genetic material from ordinary adult cells. It has already yielded successful treatments for a number of diseases including leukemia. Adult stem cells are less risky because the body doesn't reject them (they are harvested from the very patient they are used in) and they are not likely to spawn tumors, a serious problem so far in animal experimentation with embryonic cells.
Like the masses chanting "Yes we can," embryonic cells want to grow without limits. Forcing them to grow helpfully, not fatally, has proved impossible to date.
In late 2007, two independent research teams created Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, a way to coax ordinary, adult stem cells to revert back to something like an embryonic cell. This research calls into question the very need for experimentation on human embryos at all.
Which makes me wonder if President Obama's policy change is driven more by science or politics?
But these are arguments about efficiency, not moral principle. Yes, adult stem cells are effective. They have produced new treatments and the promise of more. Their use is not clouded by difficult moral dilemmas.
Embryonic stem cells have thus far yielded nothing but medical dead ends. But even if that were not true, even if human embryos held the key to eternal life, destroying them for the sake of the living is still the moral equivalent of cannibalism, a practice long ago repudiated by every civilized society. That we would consider such a thing today... uh, staggers me.
Yes, we can. No, we shouldn't.
Illustration credit: Wikipedia