The great stem-cell debate has been portrayed in the mainstream press as a conflict between science and religion, between facts and prejudice. This has never been fair, but The Washington Post sinks to a new level in its take on the strongest evidence so far in favor of the administration's refusal to fund new embryo destruction. Their news report on an extraordinary Harvard story reads like an op-ed, and it has the almost incredible title: "Stem Cell Advance Muddles Debate: Work May Stall Efforts to Lift Research Limits."
This reads like a headline from The Onion. Scientists come up with a Nobel-level breakthrough allowing scientists to convert human skin cells into embryonic stem cells. They have the honesty to publish results that are politically inconvenient (because we can now say, "I told you so, ethical science works"). And the press frames their achievement as if it "muddles" the debatebecause, of course, it makes it harder for those who want the federally funded destruction of embryos.
Never fear! The scientists themselves are already backtracking. Under intense pressure from the forces in the science establishment who are desperate to manufacture and harvest embryos, they themselves are playing down their results: "This technology is not ready for prime time," said lead author Kevin Eggan. "This is not a replacement for the techniques we already have." And the Post gives the last word to Jim Greenwood, former congressman who is now runs BIO, the trade group that is fixated with the need to clone embryos: "It would be a colossal mistake for any member of the United States Congress to pretend he or she knows enough about this process to foreclose any other process." In other words, forget the science along with the ethics: We know best.
So many Americans have been deceived by the hyped support for cloning embryos for "one-on-one medications" (the alluring promise that gained prominence following Ron Reagan Jr.'s Democratic Convention speech before last year's election) that what is really going on is almost a secret. A secret, that is, unless you look for yourself. Stem cells that are actually being used to cure patients don't come from embryos at all. I wonder how many Americans know that. And after this week's front-page news from Harvard, it's going to be harder for the die-hard embryos-must-be-cloned enthusiasts to be taken seriously.
According to The Boston Globe, "Harvard scientists have created cells similar to human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a major step toward someday possibly defusing the central objection to stem-cell research." But this is just the latest example of a string of developments that show the way the technology is moving.
In The New York Times for August 18, a provocative headline actually declares: "Microgravity tech could sway stem-cell debate." And the report begins like this: "Microgravity technology developed by NASA can multiply stem cells from a newborn's blood in large enough quantities to be used to regenerate human tissue, London scientists have found. Researchers at U.K.-based Kingston University have discovered primitive stem cells in the umbilical cord blood of infants that are similar to those from human embryos, which can be used to develop into any tissue in the body."
I don't know if this research will pan out, but it's just a sample of the dozens of studies that keep coming out suggesting that the equation of cures with destroying embryos is nonsense.
I made my own effort at setting the record straight in the New York Post a few days ago, under the headline: "Stem Cells Without the Guilt."
Scores of editorials and news pages continue to follow the saga of "the Bush ban on stem-cell research." It's amazing how badly this gets the story wrong.
Stem-cell research is forging ahead, and funded by the feds. "Adult" stem-cell research, using these amazingly versatile cells taken harmlessly from cord blood and adults, is leading to cures in dozens of clinical trialsfunded by the federal government.
And there is no embryo research "ban." There isn't even a "ban" on funding. In fact, President Bush is the first President ever to use federal funds for research on embryos.
To get the inside story on the "secret" stem cell debate, check out StemCellResearch.org.
What we can learn from Europe
There are some more bad news stories from the U.K. this week, and we can be thankful (in a rather perverse way) that a nation with which we have so much in common is eager to teach us what the future may holdif we follow in its footsteps. Brave New Britain continues to lead the way.
Taking a further step in the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure "quality control" of embryos, the U.K. has now approved the use of genetic testing to enable a couple to have a child free of retinoblastoma.
As The Scotsman newspaper points out, "The decision breaks new ethical ground in the debate on 'designer babies,' because retinoblastoma is rarely fatal. Treatment is successful in 95 percent of cases and not all of those with the defective gene develop the disease." Dr. Calum McKellar of the Scottish Council for Human Bioethics says that because of this decision, "the floodgates for using PGD for all sorts of disorders or limitations may be open, even selecting out embryos who do not have the musical genes. Where do we stop?"
But Europe offers us illustrations at both ends of the spectrum. The U.K.'s increasingly liberal approach could hardly be more different from that in Germany, where it is illegal to create an embryo unless it will be implanted.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Life Matters columns include:
Brave New Puppy | Introducing our new life ethics weblog. (Aug. 10, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.