Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Surprise Consensus on Stem Cells?

Michelle Kirtley


February 29, 2008

In the midst of this extended presidential campaign, you may have noticed a curious silence on one of the defining issues of the 2004 contest. Despite a continuing stalemate between Congress and the White House on the issue, little has been said about President Bush’s policy on embryonic stem cell research. Celebrity disease advocates (like Michael J. Fox) have thus far been absent from the stump. Why has this issue suddenly taken a backseat?

In November, embryonic stem cell (ESC) researchers made an astounding discovery that, in the words of human ESC pioneer Jamie Thomson, marks “the beginning of the end of the controversy that has surrounded this field.” Thomson, in parallel with researchers in Japan, discovered how to reprogram adult cells so that they look and behave like embryonic stem cells. By every criterion known, these cells, called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (IPS cells), behave exactly like embryonic stem cells. Yet this remarkable reprogramming did not require the destruction of any human embryos. One advocate of ESC research and cloning hailed the achievement as “the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers’ first airplane.”

The implications of the research are far-reaching. Not only might these cells substitute for traditionally derived embryonic stem cells; more importantly, the new IPS cells will likely obviate the need for human cloning. Previously, some scientists insisted that human cloning would be required in order to generate stem cells that are matched to individual patients or specific diseases. (By creating a clone of the patient, the resulting embryo and its stem cells would not face immune rejection, for example.) IPS cells accomplish all of this without having to clone and then destroy a human embryo (which has proved so technically difficult that no studies claim to have successfully derived embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo).

The IPS cell technique also avoids the problematic need for women’s eggs. In the months since this research was published, more than 120 different IPS cell lines have been created by labs around the world, confirming and extending this valuable technique.

Astoundingly, science has forged a consensus path where politicians had failed. Those who believe in the promise of embryonic stem cells can use these new IPS cells to investigate the potential of embryonic stem cells without controversy and with federal funding. In fact, Thomson’s IPS cell research was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health. Long-time critics of ESC research hailed the breakthrough as a “win-win.” As a result, ESC advocates now find it difficult to use the issue to accuse the president of politicizing science. Hence the relative silence about the issue in this year’s presidential campaign.

Despite the new possibilities for consensus, advocates of human cloning persist in their efforts to keep human cloning legal and, in some states, subsidized with taxpayer funds. Why? Critics of human cloning research have long argued that the drive for cures masked the real intentions of cloning researchers, namely, the pursuit of knowledge without boundaries or restraint. The humanist elements of our culture have long sought mastery of nature, and mastery over the creation of human life for some scientists represents the ultimate vindication of the power of the human species. But allowing scientists to tinker with the creation of human life through cloning subverts human dignity by turning humans into research commodities and giving one class of individuals unlimited power over another.

A serious commitment to human rights by our government must include an aim to deal with issues as fundamental to human dignity as human cloning. Given that more than 70 percent of Americans believe that human embryo cloning should not be permitted, our government’s silence on this issue is deafening.

—Michelle C. Kirtley, Ph.D.
    Science Policy Analyst


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”