Ethical concerns about destroying embryos were dismissed as worries about "a clump of cells" without, as Ron Reagan dismissively put it, "fingers and toes." The pro-life writer Ramesh Ponnuru countered, "Of course the embryo looks like a human being: It looks like a human being in the embryonic stage of development." Proponents of embryonic-destructive stem-cell research spoke often about using "excess embryos" from fertility clinics. But that wasn't their ultimate objective. To treat diseases would require embryos genetically matched to patients, and those embryos would have to be created through cloning and then destroyed.
Per Dr. Thomson, it doesn't take a keen moral sense to realize, at the very least, that this is a boundary to cross only with extreme trepidation. But when in 2001 President Bush limited federal funding of embryo-destructive research to already existing stem-cell lines, he was showered with obloquy. He had "banned" such research. No, he had only denied it federal funding. He opposed "stem-cell research." No, he supported stem-cell research that didn't involve destroying any more embryos.
With the breakthrough that Bush had been hoping for -- and talking about since 2006 -- his position looks farsighted. The ethical boundary he defended helped push scientists to pursue the new discovery. Bush's opponents, on the other hand, specialized in simplistic advocacy contemptuous of moral qualms about how stem-cell research was conducted. Their muted reaction to the latest development suggests that for some of them what was so exciting about stem-cell research wasn't the far-off potential therapeutic applications, but the chance to portray pro-lifers as standing in the way of life-enhancing scientific discoveries.
"The tide of history is with us," Ron Reagan said at the conclusion of his 2004 speech. Sorry, Mr. Reagan. On this issue, the science now says otherwise.
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