The insistence on using embryonic stem cells always rested on the argument that they were pluripotent, capable of becoming any kind of cell. That superior claim no longer can be made with the spectacular discovery in 2007 of "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPS), which was the laboratory equivalent of the airplane. Very simply, iPS cells can be produced from a skin cell by injecting genes that force it to revert to its primitive "blank slate" form with all the same pluripotent capabilities of embryonic stem cells.
But "induced pluripotent stem cells" doesn't trip easily off the tongue, nor have any celebrities stepped forward to expound their virtues. (If only Angelina Jolie would purse those pouty lips and say "pluripotent.") Even without such drama, Time magazine named iPS innovation No. 1 on its "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries" of 2007, and the journal Science rated it the No. 1 breakthrough of 2008.
The iPS discovery even prompted Dr. Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, to abandon his license to attempt human cloning, saying that the researchers "may have achieved what no politician could: an end to the embryonic stem cell debate." And, just several days ago, Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, wrote in U.S. News & World Report that these recent developments "reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells ... are obsolete."
Many scientists, of course, want to conduct embryonic stem cell research, as they have and always could with private funding. One may agree or disagree with their purposes, but one may also question why taxpayers should have to fund something so ethically charged when alternative methods are available.
Next comes a move to lift the unfortunately named Dickey-Wicker amendment in Congress, which prohibits using tax dollars to create human embryos for research purposes. If the amendment is rescinded, then human embryos can be created and destroyed with federal tax dollars.
Good people can disagree on these things, but those who insist that this is "only about abortion" miss the point. The objectification of human life is never a trivial matter. And determining what role government plays in that objectification may be the ethical dilemma of the century.
In this case, science handed Obama a gift -- and he sent it back.