WASHINGTON -- Mark it down as a Public Good that through much of the summer, Washington's talking heads have been jabbering about the embattled Rep. Gary Condit, for whom Bill Clinton has been such a perilous role model. Were it not for this sorry congressman's apparent obstructions of justice, our talking heads might be squalling about an even more delicate matter, stem-cell research.
Not that the topic has been completely ignored by the chattering classes. Slowly, the columnists are picking the issue up, and it is increasingly mentioned on the cable talk shows as the political pundits perceive the Bush administration's intensifying unease over whether to allow federal funding of research on stem cells derived from human embryos. In fact, the longer the Bush administration holds off its decision, the more likely embryonic stem-cell research is to become cable television and talk radio's next marathon topic.
Right now, it appears that liberals and Democrats will favor federal funding of stem-cell experimentation -- they sense that the president is against it. Conservatives and Republicans will oppose it -- though some are not all that opposed. The serious questions of human life, its dignity, point of origin, point of exit and purpose will be lost in the roar of partisanship.
One of the unsavory political truths revealed in the 1990s has been this: More important than the truth of an issue to the political classes is which party comes down on which side of an issue. The Democrats are the feminists' party, until the leader of their party is caught abusing women. They are optimistic proponents of scientific advance, unless it is science enlisted for missile defense -- which they deem beyond science's capacity.
As the partisanship heats up over stem-cell research, I shall sit on the sidelines. Frankly, my training in biology and in ethics is a bit shaky, particularly in biology and related sciences. It will take me a while to arrive at the truths of an issue that is now so deeply shadowed in doubt and misinformation. I think I have a grasp of some of these truths, for instance, whether an embryo is a human being. But there are other truths that are beyond me, for instance, what to do with medical cures derived from morally dubious research or from murdered humans.
Another question that I am wholly incapable of answering is whether stem-cell research using umbilical cords or adult stem cells is as feasible and productive as research on embryonic stem cells. If it is, why not avoid the controversy, step around the attendant questions of infanticide or the harvesting of human organisms, and simply conduct research on adult stem cells and umbilical cords?
One of the country's great men of science, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, provides one answer. In The Wall Street Journal, he writes: "It has been suggested that adult tissues might provide an alternative source of stem cells. This is simply false." Fine, but then one of the country's most knowledgeable scientific journalists, Michael Fumento, rambles through his column in The Washington Times depositing a dozen testimonials to or instances of non-embryonic stem cells serving medical research. So who am I to believe?
For about 40 years now, increasingly technical questions as complex as embryonic stem-cell research have been heaved into the political arena and batted around by political partisans. One side brings forward the arguments of its favorite (and most agreeable) scientists. The other side comes up with the scientists on its side. Yet, after a while, usually the scientists and other experts can establish a consensus that at least establishes facts.
Consider the environment. In the 1970s, one side was predicting the exhaustion of fossil fuel, the depletion of natural resources and world-wide starvation owing to the inability of agriculture to keep up with population. A tremendous scientific debate ensued on each topic. Pundits with no knowledge of science or engineering or agriculture weighed in full throat. Notwithstanding their fortissimos, sound science came to our side. We now have plenty of energy and natural resources, while the food supply is surpassing population everywhere -- if suppliers can only get it to the victims of primitive governments.
Surely in the debate on stem-cell research, civilized people can delay policy decisions until the facts are better established and more widely understood by the citizenry. The research on cures for major diseases remains a long way off. To rush in now and establish research practices that deny the sacred value Western civilization has always placed on human life is to head off into a historic epoch that might well put an end to Western civilization and open us to an era that the totalitarians of the 20th century welcomed. Imagine the Nazis' goals being implemented by American humanists pursuing medical breakthroughs.