Is the Stem Cell Debate Over?


Nope. Not even getting warmed up.

But two recent stories–one in the June ish of Wired and one in today's Wash Post hold forth the promise of basically creating embryo-free embryonic stem cells (let's bracket for the time being conversation over whether stem cells are going to pay off in the long haul).

From the Post story:

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.

"That would really get around all the moral and ethical concerns," said James F. Battey, chief of the stem cell task force at the National Institutes of Health.

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.

For instance, here's Francis Fukuyama in a Reason debate on biotech opposing life extension for reasons that have nothing to do with embyros:

The argument that more medical advance is necessarily good needs to be treated with some skepticism. At the hearing on the Weldon bill banning cloning…a representative of a patients advocacy group said the baby boomers were getting older and desperately needed cures for a variety of diseases with which they would soon be afflicted-as if research cloning would prevent them from ever having to die. If you want a real nightmare scenario, consider one in which we double life spans but increase periods of debility by a few decades.

Fukuyama's full 2002 exchange with Redesigning Humans author Gregory Stock is online here. He also fretted over "refuse to get out of the way; not just of their children, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

George W. Bush's bioethics kingpin, Leon Kass, is on record as saying, "The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not." Like Fukuyama and others that Reason's Ron Bailey has pegged as "pro-death," the core issue is not how we might extend life but whether we should.

Embryo-free embyronic stem cells may shut down one large part of the current debate, but it will hardly "get around all the moral and ethical concerns" in play. Nor should it, I might add.