Embryonic stem cells may not have the “magic” powers that Ron Reagan Jr. attributed to them at the last Democratic convention, but myths about them certainly seem to have impressive regenerative abilities: No matter how often they are knocked down, they keep coming back.
Take, for example, the claim that there is a federal “ban” on embryonic-stem-cell research, which has recently been repeated by Sen. Joe Lieberman and the editorialists of the Los Angeles Times. It is untrue. Both the private sector and state governments can finance such research without the federal government saying boo. The federal government does not, however, finance such research when it involves the destruction of human embryos. But we are sure we are going to be hearing about a “ban” at least through the end of the Bush presidency.
And especially this week, as the Senate debates whether to provide federal funding for research that destroys embryos taken from fertility clinics. No informed person can possibly believe that providing such funding will bring us cures for anything. People who think embryonic-stem-cell research has great promise, and have no ethical objections to pursuing it, know that the fertility-clinic embryos do not have the properties they need. What they really want is to create embryos with the requisite genetic profiles, and derive made-to-order stem cells from them. But they also know that the Congress is not about to fund research that involves cloning human embryos. So they are pushing this bill in order to hand pro-lifers a defeat and to prepare the country for what they really want.
Amid this political maneuvering, the science is advancing in unexpected directions. It looks more and more likely that pluripotent stem cells—stem cells with the properties and promise of embryonic stem cells—can be derived without killing human embryos. It is true that the science is at an early stage. But if that’s a reason to dismiss research into alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells, it is a reason to dismiss embryonic-stem-cell research, too: Adult stem-cell research is more established than either.
The restriction on federal funding serves an important ethical purpose: to keep taxpayers from being complicit in the deliberate destruction of human embryos. The restriction also helps to bar the door from worse ethical violations that may be on the way. It is too weak to pinch scientists, and as science develops it will pinch less and less. If the Senate wants to open the spigot for federal funding, President Bush will be right to veto its work.