Paul Greenberg

It was heralded as not just a scientific but an ethical breakthrough:

Scientists in this country and Japan had found a new way to produce what are in effect embryonic stem cells - but without having to destroy human embryos to do so.

Great news! At last an ethical dilemma was solved. Here is a way to obtain embryonic stem cells without destroying human life. Call it a happy ending all around.

George Daly, associate director of Boston Children's Hospital stem cell program, called the discovery "just a spectacular, spectacular advance. It will change everyone's thinking about the field."

You may remember Ian Wilmut, the Scottish researcher who helped clone Dolly the sheep years ago. He was at least as enthusiastic. He announced he would abandon his efforts to clone - and then destroy - human embryos in order to produce stem cells, and would switch to the new, less politically and ethically troublesome method.

"It's a win-win for everyone involved," said the Rev. Thomas Berg of the Westchester Institute, a Roman Catholic think tank. "We have a way to move forward," he said, which "brings the kind of painful national debate over this controversial research to very much a peaceful and promising resolution."

Really? Anyone of even passing familiarity with the endless demands of human ambition for fame and/or fortune - the Greeks called it Hubris - will not be surprised to learn that the latest discovery has scarcely discouraged those eager to experiment with human embryos.

Scientists will now come up with all kinds of new reasons or at least rationalizations for the continued use of human embryos and the stem cell lines derived from them. Federal funding for such experimentation may be forbidden, but by now the total investment in embryonic stem cell research probably runs into the billions of dollars. Who would want to risk losing all that? Only those with a remaining sense of moral restraint in an age not known for it.

The solely scientific case for or against continuing to experiment with human embryos is complicated in a way the ethical question isn't. The temptation to create human life artificially goes back to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

To say the least. Man's first temptation in the Garden comes when the serpent assures Adam and Eve that they need only eat the forbidden fruit, and "ye shall be as gods." In this case, by creating and destroying human life in a laboratory - for a good purpose, of course. There's always a good purpose. For there is no evil man cannot justify, especially if we were set on it all along.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.