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Harkin on Stem Cells


Senator Harkin’s statement, which Kathryn quoted below (that the debate can’t end because “scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful”) is exactly the kind of thing Ramesh was concerned about. It’s not surprising from Harkin, but it has been thankfully quite rare on the whole in the responses of long-time advocates of embryo research. Most do see what this study means, and the scientists they’ve relied on for advice all these years are being very clear in showing it to them.

As I noted yesterday, Doug Melton of Harvard took a direct swipe at this kind of dismissiveness, telling the New York Times “Anyone who is going to suggest that this is just a side show and that it won’t work is wrong.” James Thomson, who led one of the two teams that published yesterday, and who was also the first person to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998, put it plainly to reporters yesterday:

It’s probably the beginning of the end for that controversy,” said James Thompson , a stem-cell scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose lab was used by the U.S. research team. “I do believe that over time these new cells will be used by more and more labs, and embryonic stem cells will be gradually used by fewer and fewer labs.

That seems about right. We’re not talking about an instantaneous abandonment of ongoing work, but over time this looks likely to replace embryo-destructive research. That does mean, though, that the case for extending federal funding to encourage the destruction of new (essentially randomly selected) embryos originally produced for fertility treatment (which is what the bill Harkin wants, and Bush has twice vetoed, would do) should make essentially zero sense now even to people who don’t themselves see ethical problems with destroying embryos. This new method offers genetically matched cells that seem to have the same capabilities, and the Bush policy allows for funding for a lot of basic science on long-established lines of embryonic stem cells without ongoing embryo destruction. So what is the case for a huge federal investment in new lines of non-matched cells obtained in extremely controversial and divisive ways? Harkin seems almost to hope that “scientists may yet find” such a case. But why? Why not take yes for an answer?