When somatic cell reprogramming—the great advance that seems likely to end the stem cell debate—was announced last month, a lot of embryo research advocates insisted its development had nothing to do with any of the ethical issues surrounding the work, but was purely a matter of scientific efficiency and the like.
But now the leaders of both teams of researchers involved in that advance have suggested that wasn’t all there was to their thinking. James Thomson, who led the American team involved in the work, told the New York Times last month he had always had some concerns about the the destruction of embryos and that “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”
And in today’s New York Times the leader of the other team, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, recounts why he first began to look for alternatives to embryo-destructive research. He tells of looking at an embryo under a microscope at a friend’s in vitro fertilization lab:
“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
Certainly questions of pure science had a great deal to do with Thomson’s and Yamanaka’s advance. They and the vast majority of other stem cell researchers are not pro-lifers moved above all by the ethical questions. But there is no question that the ethical issues, and the political turmoil that resulted from them (which led also to a major Bush administration focus on the alternative techniques in the past few years), had a lot to do with it too.