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June 06, 2005

STEM CELL UPDATE:

In recent months, a number of researchers have begun to assemble intriguing evidence that it is possible to generate embryonic stem cells without having to create or destroy new human embryos. . . .

Yet the gathering consensus among biologists is that embryonic stem cells are made, not born -- and that embryos are not an essential ingredient. That means that today's heated debates over embryo rights could fade in the aftermath of technical advances allowing scientists to convert ordinary cells into embryonic stem cells.

This would defuse the pro-life opposition. It wouldn't address the concerns of those -- like, say, Leon Kass -- who are uncomfortable with dramatic advances in medical technology for other reasons.

UPDATE: Kathryn Jean Lopez doesn't like my Kass reference above. But the reference, which could have been clearer, was to Kass's generally negative view of "the relief of man's estate" by science, and in particular to his argument (discussed here) that another 20 years of healthy life would probably be a waste. I should have been clearer -- one of the hazards of blogging is that you tend to assume that everyone is keeping pace with the conversation when, through no fault of theirs, that's not necessarily the case at all.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ed Cone notes an important passage from the story that bears repeating:

"It is largely by analyzing how nature makes stem cells, deep inside days-old embryos, that these researchers are learning how to make the cells themselves."

And Ron Bailey observes:

Achieving that goal would certainly have been dramatically delayed, if not made impossible, had human embryonic stem cell research been banned.

As I wrote a while back, this is the weakness in the "just use adult cells" argument:

I actually think that eventually adult stem cells will do all the work. But I don't know that, and ruling out research involving embryonic stem cells now might keep us from getting to that point, or get us there much later.

Apparently, that's turned out to be the case. But as that earlier post will make clear, Lopez and I are not on the same page on this issue.

Meanwhile, Nick Gillespie notes that there's more than just anti-abortion politics involved here:

While I agree that embryo-free embryonic stem cells (perhaps sweetened with Splenda! for a low-cal, low-impact panacea) would shut down one large aspect of the debate over biotech, I think the issue is far more complicated.

That's because leading opponents to embryonic stem cells are not simply worried about the embryo issue--they fundamentally question whether we should be intervening to prolong and improve human lifespans and ameliorate human suffering.

He quotes Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama as having non-abortion-related concerns about dramatic medical advances. To my knowledge, Lopez doesn't share those doubts, but she would be wise not to shut her eyes to their existence, or to suggest that those of us who invoke them are unaware of what's going on.

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