Human Exceptionalism

James Thomson and the Bush ESCR Funding Policy

I admire James Thomson, the scientist who first derived human embryonic stem cells and helped push the IPSC “lead into gold” breakthrough into human application. As most of the Science Establishment has outrageously hyped the potential of using ESCs for CURES! CURES! CURES!, Thomson has always been circumspect and clearly stated that any such treatments are many years away–if they come at all. Thomson also notably admitted that human cloning creates a human embryo and said that it is “disingenuous” to claim otherwise.

In a Forbes interview, Thomson explains how he is going into business to help find treatments for heart disease. In a Q and A, he also opines that the best value for ES cells (and IPSCs) will probably be in drug testing and the study of tissues–not regenerative medical transplants.

But the following statement is what made me think his comments worth posting about. In answering whether he had expected “the level of controversy you encountered” after deriving human ES cells, Thomson replied in part:

Dolly was cloned in 1997. All the reporters doing Dolly switched to embryonic stem cells in 1998. I certainly perceived it would be a firestorm. I didn’t anticipate how long it lasted, and most of that is because of the election of George Bush. Had this become normal science eight years ago, we’d be past it already.

Which is precisely why the Bush policy is such a triumph. ESCR should never be “normal science,” by which I perceive Thomson to mean open federal funding with no ethical questions raised about the fundamental approach. But because Bush restricted funding without attempting to actually ban any research, he sent a loud message that the moral status of the human embryo matters. And that is why “the scientists” as well as others got so angry.

Consider this: If ESCR were now merely “normal science,” all ethical concerns would have been swept away and the argument today would be over whether to federally fund human cloning research–or worse. It is also quite possible that with human embryos no longer of serious moral concern, that the IPSC breakthrough might not have happened. Moreover, the time Bush bought allowed the tremendous advances in adult stem cell science to occur, further altering the political ground.

Bush’s policy is scorned by those who want science to be given a blank ethical and financial check. But for those who worry that the intrinsic value of human life is undermined profoundly by treating even nascent human organisms as a mere instrumentality, a mere utility as some Leftists once put it, Bush’s policy is deeply appreciated because it supported solid science without sacrificing a proper regard for important ethical principles of human exceptionalism that under gird the very concept of universal human rights.

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