For a generation, American politics has largely been frozen in place when it comes to so-called "reproductive issues." Abortion has been the keystone holding up a number of related positions, from euthanasia to embryonic stem cell research, with self-described pro-lifers and pro-choicers locked in a permanent cold war.
But the light of science is melting the permafrost beneath them, making abortion seem like a 20th-century argument about feminism whereas the argument in the 21st century will be about humanity itself - and whether science is the source of human values.
Tellingly, in the past, both sides in the abortion wars have claimed science as their ally in the fight over when life begins. Embryonic stem cell research, however, has changed the focus of that argument because, for good reasons and bad, ESCR advocates want to stop talking about those who are pro-life and start calling their opponents "anti-science," as if being anti-science - whatever that means - is an immoral stance.
Pro-embryonic stem cell activists have given science something of a messianic role in human affairs, casting it as a deliverer from our moral plight. For example, in a pique of asininity, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., declared this month, "It is scandalous that eight years have passed since we have known about stem cell research and the potential to conquer all known maladies, and federal funds have not been available for the research."
All ... known ... maladies? Really? Before that, John Edwards all but promised that a vote for John Kerry was a vote for Christopher Reeve to walk again.
But it appears that Hermes (the Greek god of science) is proving to be a fickle ally. New research shows that there are other, perhaps more promising, sources of "pluripotent" cells (i.e., ones that can become any other cell) that don't involve destroying embryos. Wake Forest researchers found rich sources of stem cells in simple amniotic fluid. Pro-lifers are now using this research to cast themselves as the true allies of science. Hermes' sword, it seems, has a double edge.
Simply because science can do something is in no way an argument that it should (or shouldn't) do it. Science is morally neutral. Science kills and science cures. Which is why it's so disturbing that both left and right have bought into the rhetoric of science as a source of morality. Scientists themselves tend to understand the moral ambiguity of science, which is why they spend so much time arguing about professional ethics.