Since it began almost a decade ago, the debate over embryonic-stem-cell research has been driven by two simple premises: embryonic stem cells are uniquely valuable for their potential to be turned into the other cell types of the body, and they are derived through the destruction of embryos. The first premise — the potential of the cells — explains the desire to explore their uses. And the second — the destruction of nascent lives involved in getting the cells — explains the moral opposition of millions of Americans, including President Bush.
The federal government’s policy regarding the funding of embryonic-stem-cell research has since 2001 tried to balance these two concerns, taking the two premises into account. The policy supports research on lines of cells created in the past without a taxpayer-funded incentive to destroy human embryos, and refuses to create such an incentive going forward.
This framework for funding has allowed a tremendous amount of research to proceed (more than 130 million federal taxpayer dollars have been spent on embryonic-stem-cell research), but it has also come under bitter attack by those who want more taxpayer subsidies for the research with fewer restrictions — those moved by the first premise of the debate, but untroubled by the second. A middle ground, shaped by both premises, has not been enough for them.
These opponents have tried to argue that time and advances in stem-cell science have undermined the principle of the Bush policy. But in reality, over the past two years a slow but steady wave of new research has begun to undermine not the Bush policy but rather the two original premises of the entire stem-cell debate. It seems that embryonic stem cells may not be unique in their so-called “pluripotency,” and it therefore seems that cells with the potential scientists are after could be obtained without causing harm to human embryos. More than a middle ground, these developments (including several important ones announced earlier this year, involving somatic-cell reprogramming and the use of amniotic-fluid stem cells) suggest the possibility of a complete end-run around the argument.
The Washington Post’s science reporter, Rick Weiss, noted earlier this month the increasing prominence of such techniques in stem-cell labs around the country. “Stem cell research is hot,” he wrote, “and a lot of it is focused on finding ways to obtain the therapeutically promising cells without the scientific and ethical complications of dealing with human embryos.”
The political debate has been slow to catch up with all this. Just this month, the Congress again sent President Bush a bill that would use taxpayer dollars to create an incentive for the destruction of embryos. And although the Senate also passed a bill to fund the exploration of new emerging stem-cell alternatives, House leaders have refused even to let that bill come to a vote.
Yesterday, President Bush vetoed the bill Congress sent him, because it encourages the destruction of embryos. But as he did so, the President also showed that he, unlike the leaders of Congress, does understand that the basic premises of the debate are being radically revised, and for the better. And he did what he could to clarify and to advance that transformation.
As he vetoed the bill, Bush issued an executive order instructing his administration to support newly emerging alternative sources of pluripotent stem cells. The order formally acknowledges the changing nature of the debate, by changing the very name of the federal government’s registry of supported stem-cell lines from the “human embryonic stem cell registry” to the “human pluripotent stem cell registry.” This modest change points to the momentous revolution in our understanding of stem cell science, and to the avenues for ethical scientific progress it makes possible. Under its original name — which referred to the source of particular stem cells rather than to their abilities — the registry could include only the defined set of embryonic-stem-cell lines that existed before the president announced his policy, that is before August 9 of 2001. But newly reconceived under this order, the NIH registry will now include all human stem cell lines with the abilities researchers have prized in embryonic stem cells, provided their development does not require the creation or destruction of embryos. The registry will therefore grow as new and ethically uncontroversial stem-cell techniques march forward.
The executive order then instructs the National Institutes of Health to find ways to support and encourage that march, and to call upon scientists to apply for funding to explore new techniques.
The order marks a crucial turning point in the way the government understands the contours of stem-cell science, and the way it defines its role in supporting that science. It shows that the administration, unlike the Congress, has begun to catch up with stem-cell research, and moved past the dispute over so-called “left over” IVF embryos that is no longer of much relevance to the future of the field.
None of this means stem cells will or will not bring hoped-for cures. And none of it means practical applications for pluripotent cells are anywhere around the corner. But yesterday’s announcement does mean the stem-cell debate is at a very significant crossroads. Years from now, in retrospect, this period could well be seen as the beginning of the end of this divisive but important debate. The two premises of the dispute — our desire to advance promising medical research and our desire to respect and protect every human life — seem increasingly likely to reinforce each other, not oppose each other. And with the proper encouragement and aid, America’s scientists may well chart a course around the ethical (and therefore the political) controversy.
In Wednesday’s executive order, President Bush showed he wants to provide that encouragement and aid. The leaders of Congress have yet to make it clear that they agree.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.