Why the Stem Cell Fight Should, at Last, Be Over

By Chris Mooney | July 8, 2009 1:34 pm

My latest Science Progress column reacts to the new finalized stem cell guidelines promulgated by the National Institutes of Health this week. First, I give the background on Bush’s awful policy, finally superseded:

The Bush administration’s increasingly unpopular policy, you’ll recall, stated that no stem cell lines derived from blastocysts after the date of the former president’s August 9, 2001 speech on the matter could be used in research receiving federal funds. This raised a host questions, both about ethics and also about coherence—for how could a rule based simply on which day Bush gave his speech have any moral authority?

The policy lacked scientific authority as well, as it was soon revealed that Bush’s promise of “more than sixty genetically diverse” stem cell lines for federally funded research was simply bogus and based on a gross overestimate of the number of available lines. There were really only 21, and “genetically diverse” was a dubious assertion to boot. So the Bush policy wound up constraining research far more than it had at first appeared, and far more than promised. This story of scientific carelessness (or worse) during the president’s nationally televised stem cell address has now been told and retold, and it further undermined the Bush policy: How could a decision made on the basis of incorrect information—and maintained doggedly in the face of contrary information—have any authority at all?

The Obama policy is vastly better than this, on both the ethics and on the promotion of science:

In critiquing right wing anti-stem cell research views, I and many others have observed that if there’s something morally wrong with destroying embryos period, then the entire in-vitro fertilization industry ought to be the target of ire—not just federally funded embryonic stem cell research. For once you’ve got a fully legal IVF industry chugging along, producing extra embryos that are ultimately going to be destroyed, and giving parents the choice of what to do with them, you’re inevitably going to have some parents choosing to donate excess embryos to research rather than simply discard them. At this point, all the Obama administration is saying is that you can use federal monies to study cell lines that have emerged in this way—hardly a stance that ought to be controversial. Rather, it is vastly more coherent, consistent, and scientifically grounded than the older Bush policy.  It’s also, needless to say, more supportive of the scientific imperative: The Washington Post estimates that the Obama approach opens the floodgates for federal research on some 700 lines, a vast improvement upon Bush’s 21.

But the biggest point of the column–now it’s time to move on:

It is long past time to free up our minds, and our energies, so that we can look beyond embryonic stem cell research to the vastness of other bioethical challenges that will confront us in the 21st century.

You can read the full column here.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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