Today’s papers bring news of an enormous advance in stem-cell research. Scientists in the United States and Japan have managed to turn regular human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells — achieving what they’ve sought until now through the destruction of embryos, but without the need to use embryos, to use cloning, or to use eggs.
It is, to begin with, an extraordinary scientific achievement, with immense scientific potential. The new technique is much easier and cheaper than the use of embryos in research, and will likely bring about an explosion of new work on pluripotent stem cells and their applications.
But it is also, no less importantly, a powerful vindication of the premise behind much of the opposition to the destruction of embryos for research this past decade: the conviction that scientific advance need not require, and should not compel, the abandonment of ethical principles, and especially the principle of human equality that should cause us to cherish and guard every human life, from beginning to end.
In an effort to cause the country to abandon this conviction, some advocates of the research, including nearly every prominent Democrat in Congress, have made reckless and irresponsible promises, offered false hope to the suffering, depicted their opponents as heartless enemies of science, and exploited sick people for crass political gain.
Meanwhile, in an effort to defend that conviction, President Bush and most congressional Republicans have stood up to all that pressure, and have pursued an approach that seeks to advance science while also insisting on ethics. Contrary to the common myth, Bush never “banned” stem-cell research, or even federal funding for it. Instead, he permitted such funding, for the first time, in a way that could help basic science advance while not encouraging the ongoing destruction of human embryos. He acknowledged the importance of the science, acknowledged the importance of the ethics, and sought to champion both.
For several years now, the president has also clearly understood that the potential for scientific alternatives to the destruction of embryos could offer a powerful means to that end. Helped along by a variety of experts who saw that promise — perhaps most notably William Hurlbut of Stanford University, who was a member of Bush’s bioethics council — he came to recognize that stem-cell science could solve the ethical quandary stem-cell science had created. As early as 2005, Bush was speaking about “ethical ways of getting the same kind of cells now taken from embryos without violating human life or dignity.” And after trying unsuccessfully to get the Congress to support such new avenues of research, he acted on his own through an executive order this summer.
The researchers who achieved this week’s advance were not pro-lifers. They did not think it was unethical to destroy human embryos for research. But they did think there were scientific advantages to getting pluripotent cells without the need for embryos; and they knew, too, that there would be political and social advantages to it. By standing firm on principle, President Bush and many other pro-lifers made that latter point clear, and that surely played a part in getting us to what seems increasingly likely to be the end of the stem-cell debate.
This leaves the nation with a crucial lesson for what will certainly be many ethical quandaries to come as biotechnology advances: The answer to unethical science is not to give up on ethics, but rather to pursue ethical science.