By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—I have a friend who dedicated her first book to her husband “without whom this would never have been possible.” Years later, when the husband was gone, she used to fantasize about tweaking her dedication: “To my husband without whom this book would have been done five years earlier.”
I thought of her as the Bush administration claimed credit for a bona fide breakthrough in biology. Two groups of scientists in Wisconsin and Japan have found a way to reprogram ordinary skin cells so they behave like embryonic stem cells. So it may become unnecessary to use embryos in this cutting-edge research.
When the good news was announced, the White House had the gall—an Oval Office alternative for chutzpah—to claim the victory as its own. “This is very much in accord with the president’s vision from the get-go,” said policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister. Without the slightest hint of irony, he suggested that their stalwart opposition actually fueled the scientists’ success. Next thing you know the president will nominate himself for the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Let us pause and review Stem Cells 101. What scientists are trying to do is take an ordinary cell from the human body and persuade it to become, say, a heart muscle cell, or a brain cell, or a liver cell, to fix whatever ails us.
The researchers did not study embryonic stem cells because they wanted to run a recycling center for leftovers from in vitro fertilization clinics. Nor did they have a passion for wedge issues. But the embryo could do what they were still unable to do: cause ordinary body cells to act like stem cells.
This breakthrough was not the president’s “vision from the get-go” or any other go. First of all, the Bush administration bet on the wrong horse—adult stem cells. Second, the researchers couldn’t have gotten to step two without step one. They needed human embryos to learn how to do this without human embryos. They’ll still need embryos for some time, as both a benchmark and a way to judge whether stem cells from skin are effective and safe.
Not only did the “vision” impede the science, the administration also slowed it by starving funding and scaring off researchers. So James Thomson, the biologist whose work forms the bookends of this research, offers this, um, dedication: “My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years.”
Now he and other scientists are muting that political controversy. Pro-life Republicans have every reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The idea that a leftover frozen embryo had greater moral status than your aunt with diabetes didn’t wash with the general public. It was a losing battle for conservatives who are used to directing the culture wars. It even split pro-life politicians. Sen. Orrin Hatch ended up arguing with the absolutists: “People who are pro-life are also pro-life for existing life.”
Democrats, on the other hand, may breathe a sigh of regret. The stem cell controversy gave pro-choicers an iconic image of their enemy: someone who put the embryo uber alles. It gave progressives a poster girl in Nancy Reagan—and a poster boy in Michael J. Fox. Stem cells were to the left what partial-birth abortion was to the right, a way to frame a touchy issue and look like the reasonable center.
The issues that range around the stem cell debate will still be with us and with politicians. There remain more than 400,000 frozen embryos languishing in IVF clinics. As for the relative worth of an embryo and an “existing life”? There are likely to be ballot measures next year to give a fertilized egg the legal status of a human being.
Indeed, the sleeper issue of this campaign may be the one found in a YouTube video called “Libertyville Abortion Demonstration.” There, pro-life protesters at an abortion clinic are asked what punishment should be meted out to a woman who has an abortion if it becomes illegal. Their answers: “I don’t know.” “I’ve never really thought about it.” Candidates won’t get away so easily.
Nevertheless, this is a moment when anyone who prefers a cure to a battle cry should celebrate. There is still a long way from reprogramming a skin cell to treating a disease. But we’ve come to think of scientists as people racing ahead of us, leaving behind huge moral potholes. This time, science may resolve the quandaries it created.
So this success is dedicated to the scientists who freed themselves from the clutches of politics. But not to the president, without whom, well, this too would have been done years earlier.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group