Dr. Frankenstein Plods On

Paul Greenberg

1/25/2008 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Within weeks of this groundbreaking discovery, scientists at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., announced that they'd used these new, reprogrammed cells to cure sickle-cell anemia - in mice, anyway.

But such developments aren't likely to have much effect on those determined to experiment on human embryos. Scientific achievement, fame and fortune, the chance to make good by doing good, or just the urge to satisfy human curiosity, will continue to spur the race to the top of this particularly greasy pole.

Those who oppose cloning human embryos in order to destroy them for purposes of scientific research will still be called anti-science, or be accused of being callous to the plight of patients who might be cured by the results of such research. But, to quote James Thomson, a leading researcher in the field, "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough."

Some of the same arguments once used against experimentation with embryonic stem cells - for example, that it might result in deformations - are now being rolled out against the new, artificially created ones.

To quote a group of distinguished stem cell researchers, including the Japanese scientist who helped produce this new kind of stem cell, "We hold that research into all avenues of human stem-cell research must proceed together."

The debate over the uses and abuses of embryonic stem cells will doubtless get even more involved, but it's not about to conclude. For every Thou Shalt Not, there will always be those who, like the serpent, whisper: Thou Shalt!

Like stem cells, maybe that's part of human nature, too.