On March 9, 2009, President Obama signed an executive order spending federal dollars—for the first time ever—on embryo-destructive stem-cell research. Yesterday, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, the scientist who showed us that destroying embryos wasn’t necessary to produce the stem cells we want, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
When Obama signed his executive order funding embryo-destructive stem-cell research, I argued in The Weekly Standard that his decision was “bad ethics, bad science, and bad politics”—bad ethics because it created further incentives for the destruction of human beings in their very earliest stage of life; bad science because embryo destruction is no longer necessary for the types of stem cells doctors seek; and bad politics because it needlessly perpetuated a stem-cell war where an easy peace was available.
The core of Yamanaka’s discovery was that scientists could create stem cells with all the same properties as those derived from embryos without killing—or even using—embryos at all. (When this scientific breakthrough was first announced in November 2007, I explained the science and ethics of this new technique in “The End of the Stem-Cell Wars.” Alas, a better title would have been “What Should Be the End of the Stem-Cell Wars.”)
The New York Times explained what drove Yamanaka:
Inspiration can appear in unexpected places. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka found it while looking through a microscope at a friend’s fertility clinic.… He looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career. “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka.… “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
After years of high-pitched debate and front-page news coverage, surprisingly little has been heard on the subject of stem cells since the 2007 breakthrough on alternative stem-cell research.
If Obama really wanted to resolve one front of the culture wars and show respect for pro-lifers, as he claimed, he would have continued the Bush policies of refusing to use taxpayer funds for research that destroys embryos. Instead, he chose to make a show of repudiating the Bush years. Not only was this needlessly harmful to our political culture, but it wasted tax dollars on unethical and unnecessary research.
The furor over stem cells was fueled by numerous factors:
- Patients’ desperation in the face of illness and their hope for cures;
- The belief that biology can now do anything;
- The reluctance of some scientists to accept any limits (particularly moral limits) on their research;
- The impact of big money from biotech stocks, patents, and federal funding;
- The willingness of America’s elite class to use every means possible to discredit religion in general; and
- The drive for the left to protect the unlimited abortion license by accepting no protections of unborn human life.
Yamanaka has shown how good science and sound ethics can go hand-in-hand. As Julian Savulescu, an Oxford ethicist—and no friend to the pro-life movement—explained, “Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all.… He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.”