President Obama is carrying out his campaign promise to permit federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research.
This reversal of former President George W. Bush's ban on such funding is good news for the science needed to find treatments for currently incurable conditions and for the ethics at stake in the issue.
Research involving embryonic stem cells is still in its infancy. It has had a very hard time moving forward because the Bush administrationwould not allow the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies to pay for such research.
But now that Obama is overturning that scientifically unsound policy, there are those, from the Vatican to right-to-life groups in the United States, who are complaining that, on scientific grounds, he need not do so.
The critics contend that there are other routes to get the benefits of stem cell research that do not involve the use of human embryos. Some opponents of stem cell research even have the chutzpah to argue that treatments using adult stem cells — which occur naturally in some parts of the human body such as bone marrow and the lining of our intestinal tracts — have been more effective in curing diseases then embryonic stem cells.
It is true that more than 40 years of federal funding of adult stem cell research has produced certain effective treatments such as bone marrow transplants. But after eight year of zero-budget funding of embryonic stem cell research, it is hardly fair and completely disingenuous for critics to point to the practice and wonder why it lags four decades behind government-funded adult stem cell research.
Scientists, doctors support aggressive research
The people who know best — scientists and doctors — are nearly unanimous in the belief that embryonic stem cell research ought to be generously funded and aggressively pursued.
No one, not even some of the outspoken religious leaders who suddenly seem to find themselves possessed by the spirit of biological expertise, knows what the best source of stem cells will be for treating diabetes, spinal cord injuries or cardiac damage from heart attacks. No actual scientist can say with any degree of certainty whether it will be embryonic, fetal, adult, cloned or induced stem cells — those made by modifying adult stem cells so that they act like embryos — that will prove most effective.
So if I’m right and embryonic stem cell research is worth supporting with your tax dollars on scientific grounds then is it also worth supporting on ethical grounds? Absolutely. Video: Taking politics out of stem cell research
President Bush’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research was built on a single claim — that destroying human embryos is always wrong. But, even the president did not believe in his own moral principle.
Bush permitted taxpayer money to be spent on research using a few cell lines that had been made from human embryos before he became President. But, if it is wrong to destroy embryos to get stem cells then why would it be ethical to spend federal money to support such research simply because it began before an arbitrary date?
Even screwier was Bush’s tolerance of private funding for embryonic stem cell research. If embryo destruction is blatantly wrong, then isn’t it just as wrong if it is done by a private company?
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IVF clinics warehouse, destroy embryos
The utter ethical incoherence of the policy that Obama is now happily putting to rest was reflected by Bush never doing anything to close American infertility clinics. Studies I conducted and that others have done show that human embryos are routinely destroyed at many IVF clinics for a variety of reasons as an unavoidable part of the effort to help the infertile to have children.
Not only do some clinics destroy embryos, others accumulate them — in huge numbers. When a doctor is not an immoral lunatic like the one who treated the recent mother of octuplets, Nadya Sulemin, he or she puts aside some embryos so as to avoid the tragedy of mega-multiple births.
Over the past 30 years since Louise Brown — the first “test-tube” baby created through in-vitro fertilization — was born in England, more than 500,000 embryos have been frozen in American infertility clinics. There are hundreds of thousands more worldwide.
No one will ever use these embryos. They will never be put into a woman’s womb. They will all ultimately be destroyed. Why would we not permit these embryos, which already exist and whose fate is sealed, to be used in research? The critics of human embryonic research have never given a persuasive ethical answer.
Obama’s decision to permit federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is — finally — the correct policy for the United States to follow. We have the scientific expertise and infrastructure to establish whether embryonic stem cell research can deliver cures. And we have sufficient moral consensus that it is the right thing to do. Obama’s decision puts the sick and severely disabled at the center of federal research efforts — right where they should be.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
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