The Corner

RE: Cell Breakthrough

Mona, this sort of thing is unfortunately all too common at the Washington Post. The Post actually does some of the very best science reporting in the business, but whoever writes their headlines is frequently very confused. My favorite example is from a 2006 story about an advance in which adult cells in mice were transformed into embryonic-like cells without the need for embryos. The Post had a great story on the work, and the headline was: “Embryonic Stem Cell Success,” which is exactly what the story was not about.

The breakthrough described today (as I mentioned here yesterday) is really an immensely significant step in regenerative medicine, not only because it doesn’t involve ethical concerns or embryos (or indeed stem cells at all) but because if it translates to humans it is work that can be done directly in the body of a living patient. It has created enormous excitement among cell scientists. And, as Mona points out, it also shows what some of us have long argued: that science guided by some basic ethical boundaries can find ways forward without violating human dignity or human life. This work certainly relies on past embryonic stem cell work, but it makes that work into a path for an ethical (and in this case even scientifically preferable) alternative—which was exactly the logic of President Bush’s stem cell funding policy, much as his critics hate to admit it.

In the long run, when the heat of the argument has subsided a bit, that should be the real lasting lesson of the stem cell debate: that science policy ought not be made in crisis mode where no limits can be contemplated, but rather with a sense that we are engaged in a human endeavor with important moral ends, which must take heed of some important moral bounds.

I might add that I try to draw out that and other lessons from the stem cell debates (among other subjects) in my forthcoming book on science and politics, which will be out next month.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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