Contentious? Let's hope so. Let's hope it will always be contentious to create or destroy human life -- in this case, both -- for research purposes only.
Promising? Absolutely. Such experimentation has yielded a multitude of promises. Indeed, nothing but promises. Not a single cure.
The proven benefits of using adult stem cells, a practice that raises no moral objections, are now recorded in the scores. And using stem cells derived from placental tissue -- no ethical issue there, either -- has achieved similar, impressive results. But in the news coverage of the stem-cell debate, the distinction between embryonic and other kinds of stem cell becomes blurred, much like the ethical issues involved.
What this kind of research most definitely has produced is research grants. If that revenue stream is to be maintained, justifications for such experimentation must be broadcast till they become part of the fashionable, unquestionable culture. Something every enlightened citizen believes automatically, without reflection.
Name a debilitating disease, and embryonic stem cells are sure to cure it, or so we are told. Remember all those commercials for embryonic stem cells in the 2004 presidential campaign? If only enough Democratic senators were elected, a star like Michael J. Fox would be cured of Parkinson's. ("What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans like me.") In the race for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, voters were told that "George Bush and (GOP candidate) Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem-cell research...."
Given the magical power of embryonic stem cells, Christopher Reeve was going to rise up out of his wheelchair and be Superman again. Wonder-working televangelists who make the paralyzed walk have nothing on Democratic campaign committees.
How strange: For years now, state and private funding has been available for experimentation on embryonic stem cells. Yet it still has to produce a single demonstrated cure. Maybe only federal dollars are magic.
With all the attention focused on the unfulfilled promise of embryonic stem cells, there's scarcely any mention of what really has changed: Scientists now have found a way to convert ordinary skin cells into the kind needed for experimentation.
Result: There is no longer any need to cross ethical boundaries. But there is still a political need to paint the opposition as mean-spirited ogres opposed to science, progress, medicine and probably apple pie, too. For there are grants to be handed out, an industry to be built, propaganda to be made. And, always, more ethical lines to be crossed.