With his recent encouragement to Congress to ban human cloning, President Bush is sure to come under the fire of the scientific research community and a media that wants nothing to stand in the way of the progress of science towards "future cures." The development of stem cells derived from adult skin cells in late-2007 provided hope for the pro-life argument in the field of bioethics. Human lives may yet be saved despite the rampant disregard shown by much of the American public.
As President Bush explained in his State of the Union address, scientists recently "discovered a way to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells." This development holds the promise of new, ethical research and may eliminate the "need" for research that destroys embryos, produces clones, or harvests women's eggs. These adult stem cells provide hope for human life in a culture that seems willing to destroy its young to heal its old.
This willingness to destroy life began when scientists clamored for funding and attention as they explored the potential of embryonic stem cells. The media and many politicians were only too happy to oblige, trumpeting the "promises" of embryonic stem cells long before anything was actually tested. Moreover, any resistance to the idea of leaping into embryonic stem cell research was immediately labeled "ramblings of the religious right" and promptly dismissed.
This hasty move dismissed the need for care and wisdom in medical ethics, but that's not surprising in a culture that kills millions of its own when they become "inconvenient." If we can kill the unborn because they are inconvenient, why not kill even younger humans if they can provide us with cures for diseases?
No one proclaims the fact that embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide one approved treatment. The research moves forward on the basis of hope. Ethical and fiscal concerns are ignored on the basis of hope—hope that old humans will one day be able to harvest cures from the lives of small, young humans.
Thankfully, science itself has provided a practical hope for those who find their culture's embrace of death deplorable. In September, Toronto researchers used stem cells derived from skin cells to treat the spinal cords of rats. These cells, termed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), have most of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells, but forming them does not require the destruction of embryos. In November, James Thomson, a Wisconsin scientist, was able to do produce the same pluripotent stem cells from human cells.
In addition to removing the "need" to destroy human embryos, the creation of iPSCs from adult cells holds the future possibility that a diseased person could be treated with stem cells derived from their own cells. This would solve the "need" for cloning, since cloning is performed in the hope that it will produce stem cells which are not rejected by a patient's immune system. Stem cells derived from a patient's own cells would not be rejected by their immune system. Moreover, the iPSC method would eliminate cloning's ethical problems: the common destruction of embryos, the harvesting of women's eggs, and the possible ethical nightmare of cloned humans.
The potential of iPSCs is so great that it may very well eliminate the "need" for typical embryonic stem cell research and cloning. Embryos would not be destroyed, because similar stem cells would be produced from regular adult cells. Cloning would not be "needed", because these adult stem cells would be accepted by the patient's immune system.
There is much to be excited about in this development. So much, in fact, that two prominent scientists have already declared that the future lies with iPSCs. Professor Ian Wilmut, whose work in cloning originally produced Dolly the sheep, said in November that he was turning away from cloning in order to focus on the better prospects of iPSCs. Dr. James Thompson, who developed the first human embryonic stem cell lines, declared that the development of iPSCs was a huge step forward that would probably make the stem cell wars a distant memory: "Isn't it great to start a field and then to end it?"
The development of adult stem cells is a great technical boon that may allow the culture to move beyond the ethical questions of the stem cell debate, but as wonderful as this technology is, there are deeper questions which remain unresolved. Americans have been unwilling to impose strict moral limits on the progress of science. In fact, such efforts have been labeled foolhardy and fundamentalist instead of what they really are: careful and wise. But much evil has been done in the name of progress or science—one need only recount the terrors inflicted on Jews prior to World War II. The progress of science should be undergirded by sound moral and ethical principles.
Americans have abandoned a full understanding of human life. The destruction of human life for convenience through abortion has run rampant for over three decades. Advancing science is encountering new questions which may further undermine the definition and value of human life. Americans must rediscover the importance of human life before that life is completely trampled through their own selfish hunger for cures at any cost.
President Bush recognized this connection between human life and stem cell research in his State of the Union address. Regarding the adult stem cell development, he said, "This breakthrough has the potential to move us beyond the divisive debates of the past by extending the frontiers of medicine without the destruction of human life…. And as we explore promising avenues of research, we must also ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves."
The President's remarks prompted all present to stand and applaud. His words were an important reminder that human life should be respected and protected at every stage of existence. A just society must never loose sight of that foundational principle.