The "sideshow" has become the main event. For years, we've been told that only stem-cell research that destroys human embryos is worth pursuing. Everything else is a diversion, driven by fanatical religious opposition to the progress of science.
When President Bush sought legislation from Congress to advance research that didn't involve destroying embryos, he was rebuffed by the Democratic Congress. Eventually, he issued an executive order in June 2007 to promote stem-cell research "without violating human dignity or demeaning human life."
Now, a breakthrough could deliver all the therapeutic potential of stem-cell research with none of the ethical concerns. We learned this past week that stem cells that are just as versatile -- and therefore as potentially useful in treating disease -- as those derived from destroying embryos can be created by "reprogramming" human skin cells. The moral problem thus disappears.
Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, a pioneer in embryo-destructive stem-cell research in the late 1990s, was one of the scientists who discovered the new method. "If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable," he told The New York Times, "you have not thought about it enough." Apparently, very few Democrats thought about it at all.
They trotted out Ron Reagan, son of the late president who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, to make the case for embryo-destructive stem-cell research at their 2004 national convention. He didn't mention that there was any other potential way to derive stem cells, and hyped embryo-destructive research as promising "your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital." As for the moral objections, well, "the theology of the few should not be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many."
Democrats loved this narrative: theology versus science, with its echo of the Inquisition repressing Galileo. It drove the charge that the Bush administration was waging "a war on science." As if placing ethical bounds on science is a denial of the scientific method and the value of research itself. By this logic, speed limits are "anti-driving," guardrails are "anti-highway" and meat inspections "anti-food."