The legal challenge, which has been winding its way through the courts since August 2009, has been based on the argument that embryonic-stem-cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that prohibits the federal government from funding research in which human embryos are created or destroyed. The stem-cell policy that President Obama put in place in 2009 permits federal funding for research on new lines of stem cells that were created (without federal funding) by destroying embryos donated by in vitro fertilization patients.
The case might have been made moot had Mitt Romney won in November and announced plans to change the policy, but with an Obama victory and a defeat in the courts, the federal government seems set to continue funding research on the products of destroyed human embryos for at least the next four years.
In the meantime, research on alternatives to embryonic stem cells, particularly on the induced pluripotent stem cells invented by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka in 2007, offers the chance for the life-saving medical promise of stem cells to be advanced without destroying nascent human life. As a major report on the stem-cell debatesreleased last year by the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science argued, “the potential circumvention of the embryonic stem cell controversy by scientific advances shows how conflicts between ethics and science need not always be irreconcilable.”
The example of the stem-cell debates shows that scientific progress, rightly understood and directed, can help to resolve some of the ethical problems that science itself raises. Defenders of human life should continue to make their strong ethical case for pursuing medical science without destroying embryonic human life — a case that, after today’s Supreme Court decision, will need to return to the political arena.
— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.