Stem Cells, the Right Way

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/11/07):

To our many reasons for thankfulness, we can now add the pioneering brilliance of Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson — scientists who may this week have joined a short list that includes Gregor Mendel and Marie Curie.

The breakthrough is stunning: four genes introduced into normal skin cells, enticing them to act like embryonic stem cells, which can be transformed into the 220 cell types of the human body. Somehow a piece of skin, after a few weeks of lab work, can become the cell of a beating heart.

The technology must be perfected; the cells may not prove to be exactly like embryonic stem cells; and the possibility of repairing hearts or spinal cords is still a long way off.

But the reaction of researchers has been close to giddy, and for good reason. The technique, unlike cloning, is relatively easy and inexpensive. Because the skin tissue will come from the recipient’s body, the transformed cells would not be rejected. And the source of these cells, as one researcher said, is “ethically uncomplicated.” A representative of the Catholic bishops agreed that there is “no moral problem with it at all.”

Thomson, the geneticist whose isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 ignited the controversy, sounded particularly relieved: “Ten years of turmoil and now this nice ending.”

This is wonderful news for humanity — and vindication for President Bush. In 2001, he slowed the rush toward public funding of research involving the destruction of human embryos. Instead, he directed millions of dollars toward alternative methods of obtaining stem cells, hoping science would eventually find a way around the problem. And it has.

Advocates of embryonic stem cell research accused Bush of conducting a “war on science.” John Edwards claimed during the 2004 campaign that only a John Kerry victory would allow people like Christopher Reeve to walk again. Ron Reagan Jr., speaking at the Democratic National Convention, conceded that some opponents of embryonic stem cell research were “well-meaning and sincere.” “Their belief is just that,” he continued, “an article of faith, and they are entitled to it. But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.”

This often has been the argument: that “science” — defined as technology without limits — must triumph over “theology.” But this isn’t really an argument for science or reason. It is an argument for the philosophy of utilitarianism — a belief that the well-being of the many trumps the rights of a few. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission said of experimentation on embryos in 1999: “This research is allied with a noble cause, and any taint that might attach from the source of the stem cells arguably diminishes in proportion to the potential good that the research may yield.” In other words, the ends — if they are noble enough — justify the means.

Standing in opposition to utilitarianism is a different philosophy — that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. This belief in human dignity has theological roots for some — but it is no less reasonable than the alternatives. And this commitment has informed medical ethics in the past. In 1964, the World Medical Association declared: “In medical research on human subjects, considerations related to the well-being of the human subject should take precedence over the interests of science and society.”

The human subject, in the case of embryonic research, is unrecognizable. But it is genetically distinct from other lives and undeniably human — a human at its earliest stage of development. It is not a superstition of the Dark Ages to believe that it should be valued, instead of discarded like cracked pottery.

In some quarters, advances such as this breakthrough will not be well received. A number of companies have a financial stake in embryonic research, and their stocks fell on the news. Others have an emotional investment in embryonic research because of a conviction that humanity should have unrestricted technological control over its reproductive and genetic future. “My own view,” says Sen. Arlen Specter, “is that science ought to be unfettered.”

But, as C.S. Lewis said, “Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. . . . Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

Now, science has demonstrated an even greater power — the power of morally responsible technology to serve the cause of human dignity instead of undermining it.