The discovery that stem cells may be able to be produced without destroying a human embryo was announced two weeks ago. Ever since, Bush supporters and “pro-life” Republicans have been waxing triumphant about how Bush was right to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, writers at The National Review and The Weekly Standard, and this week, Charles Krauthammer, also of the Washington Post, whose article “Stem Cell Vindication” flatly declares that “Bush won”.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, which coincidentally also appeared in another Post article. That article quoted a prominent genetic scientist who said that the Bush-imposed federal ban on embryonic stem cell research probably set the field back four to five years. A new avenue of research has been developed, but valuable time has been lost.
Stem cell research is likely to yield new medicines that can alleviate suffering and prolong life, hopefully in the near future. Then we will be able to calculate the needless suffering that Bush and his “pro-life” supporters caused; then we will be able to see the damage that can be done when religious ideology dictates policy.
But all of this is lost on the “pro-life” apologists. Not one of them mentions that this new line of research represents an opportunity cost of lost time doing other research, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists still supports continuing the earlier stem cell research (because it is too early to tell if the new avenue truly represents a complete and viable substitute).
Let me be clear: if this new research does make it unnecessary to destroy human embryos, that’s great. But it’s not the point. It never has been.
I have yet to meet a “pro-lifer” who opposes in vitro fertilization and calls it “murder”, even though embryos are destroyed in the process. The religious fundamentalists who tell us that abortion should be illegal are perfectly willing to let people go to great lengths to produce their own biological children; they know that the public would never agree to government interference in fertility decisions of this kind.
But when the destruction of an embryo might lead to a cure for cancer or paralysis (even an embryo that is going to be discarded anyway), the “pro-lifers” say that life can’t be taken. Their position is inherently inconsistent, and yet virtually no one calls them on it.
Hopefully, in 2009 we will elect a president who is willing to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Let the best minds go figure out the best methods, unimpeded by religious fundamentalists.