Human Exceptionalism

Lead Into Gold: Credit for Hurlbut Where Credit is Due

The editors of the NRO lauded yesterday’s big stem cell announcement and the part played by President Bush, also credit my pal Bill Hurlbut for his strenuous and often selfless efforts–which I witnessed and that including late nights, travel away from family, castigation by some in the science community and even among pro lifers–to forge a societal consensus and bridge our severe cultural divides by pushing the search for “alternative” sources of pluripotent stem cells. Bill’s pet project toward this end was (and is) ANT, but he always enthusiastically supported other approaches–believing that bridging the ethical gap was crucial for science and society. In any event. I am so glad the NRO editors have recognized his hefty contribution, writing:

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.

It’s always good to see credit where credit is due–for both the president and for Bill.

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