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SCIENCE, CULTURED

Stemming the Controversy

Moving Past Argument and on to Good Science

colony of human embryronic stem cells SOURCE: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison Human embryonic stem cell research has been embroiled in political controversy for much of its short existence. Now, at last, we have a policy with ethical and scientific authority.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

I don’t know about you, but following the news Monday that the National Institutes of Health has promulgated its final guidelines on the use of human embryonic stem cells in research, I am well past ready for the decade-old “stem cell” fight to finally, finally be over.

The Bush administration’s increasingly unpopular policy, you’ll recall, stated that no stem cell lines derived from blastocysts after the date of the former president’s August 9, 2001 speech on the matter could be used in research receiving federal funds. This raised a host questions, both about ethics and also about coherence—for how could a rule based simply on which day Bush gave his speech have any moral authority?

How could a decision made on the basis of incorrect information—and maintained doggedly in the face of contrary information—have any authority at all?

The policy lacked scientific authority as well, as it was soon revealed that Bush’s promise of “more than sixty genetically diverse” stem cell lines for federally funded research was simply bogus and based on a gross overestimate of the number of available lines. There were really only 21, and “genetically diverse” was a dubious assertion to boot. So the Bush policy wound up constraining research far more than it had at first appeared, and far more than promised. This story of scientific carelessness (or worse) during the president’s nationally televised stem cell address has now been told and retold, and it further undermined the Bush policy: How could a decision made on the basis of incorrect information—and maintained doggedly in the face of contrary information—have any authority at all?

More on the new stem cell policy from Science Progress

Back to the Future:
Final Stem Cell Rules Support Ethics and Innovation

By Jonathan Moreno

The new Obama guidelines are certainly a stark contrast. They allow the scientific use of all embryonic stem cell lines that are derived from excess in-vitro fertility clinic embryos, if these embryos have been donated for research by people who no longer need them for purposes of creating a child, and who have of course given their informed consent for their use in research, and passed other hurdles. There’s something very important here: If not donated for research, these excess embryos would otherwise have been discarded. They will never be implanted in a womb, so the donors who no longer need them for reproduction can instead designate their tissue for a purpose that carries scientific promise.

Why is this a better policy when it comes to ethics? In critiquing right wing anti-stem cell research views, I and many others have observed that if there’s something morally wrong with destroying embryos period, then the entire in-vitro fertilization industry ought to be the target of ire—not just federally funded embryonic stem cell research. For once you’ve got a fully legal IVF industry chugging along, producing extra embryos that are ultimately going to be destroyed, and giving parents the choice of what to do with them, you’re inevitably going to have some parents choosing to donate excess embryos to research rather than simply discard them. At this point, all the Obama administration is saying is that you can use federal monies to study cell lines that have emerged in this way—hardly a stance that ought to be controversial. Rather, it is vastly more coherent, consistent, and scientifically grounded than the older Bush policy.  It’s also, needless to say, more supportive of the scientific imperative: The Washington Post estimates that the Obama approach opens the floodgates for federal research on some 700 lines, a vast improvement upon Bush’s 21.

To be sure, some well-worn characters from the old days of the stem cell conflict loathe the new policy, including the always-quoted Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who alleges that the new rules “encourage researchers to go out and destroy embryos for taxpayer-funded research.” Doerflinger might enjoy fighting about this for another two presidential terms; but there is simply no way the U.S. Congress will even attempt to reverse what the Obama administration has done in the foreseeable future—and I for one would very much like to move on to some new and more interesting bioethics issues. It’s not like there aren’t any out there.

One such issue might even arise out of the new Obama rules—for they are certainly not what the strongest advocates of embryonic stem cell research might have wanted. Notably, the new guidelines do not allow federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos created expressly for the purpose of research—for instance through “therapeutic cloning” or “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” in which embryos are injected with the DNA contained in the nucleus of a living person’s body cells and then destroyed for their stem cells. The scientific purpose of this more morally controversial form of research is clear: You could create embryonic stem cell lines whose genes correspond to the later-life development of particular diseases, and so learn more about them.

But that’s not what our government will be funding. And as therapeutic cloning itself hasn’t been pulled off yet—it’s a worry of conservative bioethicists, but not of the mass public—that at least buys a little time until the next controversy. Call it a punt—one that may soon be returned, but also may not. For instance, another less contested avenue of research, so-called “induced pluripotent” stem cell work, is now drawing more attention than therapeutic cloning as a route to obtaining useful embryonic stem cells, and cell lines produced in this way could also be a genetic match for particular diseases.

Whatever happens next, though, one thing is clear. It is long past time to free up our minds, and our energies, so that we can look beyond embryonic stem cell research to the vastness of other bioethical challenges that will confront us in the 21st century.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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