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Stem-cell Gloating

You'd think today's great news that scientists have found a way to turn skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos would be an occasion for burying the hatchet, if you will, and moving beyond the heated debates that have surrounded the issue for much of the past decade. As it turns out, though, quite a few social conservatives seem to be taking it as an occasion for proclaiming that their moral views have prevailed, and making outlandish predictions that soon nearly everyone will come to admit how deeply wrong it was to destroy embryos for the sake of research. Here's Joseph Bottum:

All those editorialists and columnists who have, over the past ten years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicine--were they really interested in technology and health, or were they just using all that as a handy stick with which to whack their political opponents? ...  Abortion skewed the political discussion of all this, pinning the left to a defense of science it doesn’t actually hold. The more natural line is agitation against Frankenfoods and all genetic modification.

And Jonah Goldberg:

As this truth sinks in, suddenly a lot more people are going to concede that there's something immoral or at least icky about creating embryos just to cannibalize their parts. [S]ince it's not necessary to create the embryos in order to proceed with stem cell research, most people will be much more likely to condemn the very idea of creating big eugenicky labs full of embryos.

(Labs like this one? Somehow I'm not sure Americans, particularly those with fertility problems, are suddenly going to come around to the right-wing view of embryos.) Now, look, my first instinct is to just say it's great that life-saving research will, one hopes, now be able to proceed without obstruction, and leave it at that. And it is probably true that there were some small number of liberals who were interested in stem-cell research primarily because it was a rare social wedge issue that cut their way.

But it's worth at least making the obvious point that today's breakthrough doesn't suddenly mean that all the embryo-destroying research done over the last few years was misguided or morally unacceptable, or that most people will come to view it as such. Indeed, most of the scientists responsible for today's breakthrough were previously at the forefront of that very same research. I suspect you'd find very few of them who subscribe to Bottum's wildly optimistic view that "scientists will always find another, less-objectionable way to achieve their goals." (It would sure help a lot if someone would just tell this to the engineers trying to find a way to end our dependence on fossil fuels!) It's foolish to say that scientists should abandon promising avenues of research simply because others would be preferable--it's impossible to say beforehand which techniques will work and which won't. There's no contradiction at all in supporting embryo-destroying research while admitting that the new method, if it pans out, is a better approach (since embryos could have some degree of moral significance). After all, it's not as though most people were so enamored of the prospect of radical new cures that they simply disregarded their views about embryos; rather, most people were willing to support the research, incipient though it was, largely because they didn't consider embryos to be all that significant in the first place.

Only time will tell, but something tells me these predictions about large numbers of liberals and moderates suddenly realizing how horribly wrong they were to support stem-cell research are going to prove to be way off the mark.

--Josh Patashnik