Stem Cell Research Again: A Momentous Development

04/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Monday, March 9, 2009, marked the day that science was freed from the medieval shackles of religious extremism in the United States. President Obama rescinded the federal ban on stem cell research imposed by President Bush.

Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the inappropriate intrusion of religion into secular politics than the prohibition against research on stem cells imposed by Bush. Reversing the ban will free American scientists from nearly a decade of religious oversight to pursue cures for ravaging diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, Rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.

While somewhat lost in the economic implosion, Obama's support for a rational fact-based objective approach to science could be one of his most important contributions to our future. To understand the momentous nature of this shift, we need to examine why Bush imposed the ban, why such a ban so badly subverted the scientific process and how a 10-year hiatus eliminated the great hope of this science for those suffering from incurable diseases.

Bush stopped federal funding for new stem cell research by invoking the sanctity of life, a favorite phrase of the far right. The term "sanctity of life" is code for opposition to abortion, supposedly indicating a pious regard for all things living. But nothing could be further from the truth. Cows are alive, but killing them for food is not questioned. Hunting big game for sport is just fine. But since cows and big game are alive, the unctuous appeal to the "sanctity of life" is absurd. What conservative Republicans mean is that some forms of life, that only they have the right to define, are sacred, while others can be disregarded like trash.

Perhaps, then, the "sanctity of life" really applies only to human beings. No, that does not work either, because opponents of abortion, and stem cell research, are almost universally in favor of the death penalty. In fact, support for state-sanctioned death is as strong as ever among conservative Republicans, in spite of the fact that DNA evidence has exonerated close to 200 prisoners condemned on death row. Abortion foes do not view life as sacred; only some life, and certainly, only human life. But not all human life: killing in war is justified, as is lethal injection for convicted criminals. Killing an intruder is acceptable. Those proudly proclaiming support for the sanctity of life support nothing of the kind. The truth is that these folks believe life is sacred on a case-by-case basis, hardly a founding principle. What is crystal clear is that Bush valued a microscopic dot of cells smaller than the period at the end of this sentence over the life of a wounded soldier in a wheelchair, or a patient descending into the darkness of dementia who might have benefited from stem cell research.

The weak ethical argument against stem cell research is revealed in a morally contemptible twist of logic Bush used to support the ban. Bush carved out an exception by allowing research to go forward on a few cell lines in existence at the time of the ban because the embryos used to create those lines had already been destroyed. But take a moment to contemplate that idea. If destroying embryos is unethical, then use of any materials derived from such destruction would be unethical. The world long ago concluded that no medical data can be used if derived unethically, even if potentially beneficial. The horrors of World War II brought that idea clearly to the forefront.

So Bush believed destroying an embryo is wrong, but was willing to use the materials developed from destroyed embryos as long as no new embryos were destroyed. Let's take that to its logical conclusion. Since Bush believes an embryo has all the rights of a human being, he would therefore conclude that if a cell line had come from torturing and killing people it would be acceptable to use that cell line as long as we did not kill and torture anybody else to generate more cells. We have to choose between two possibilities: 1) an embryo is human life with all the commensurate rights, so we could never justify using any stem cell line because an embryo had to be destroyed to generate the cells; or 2) an embryo is a microscopic dot of cells not yet endowed with human rights, so banning stem cell research makes no sense. Bush cannot have it both ways, choosing a little from one and a little from two. His ethical contortion is evidence enough that the moral foundation on which the ban was based was highly suspect.

An embryo is said to have the rights of a human based on the deeply flawed idea that life begins at conception. True, a fetus has the potential to become human, if it successfully implants in the uterus, is not rejected by the mother's immune system, has no fatal chromosomal abnormalities and the mother herself does not die before giving birth; but an unfertilized egg also has the potential to become human, every bit as much as a fetus, every bit as dependent on a series of contingent events: it just needs to be fertilized first. Each individual sperm has the potential to become human: it just needs to fertilize an egg.

An egg, sperm and embryo all have the potential to become human, and all must be treated equally. Conferring special rights to a fertilized egg is simply arbitrary and the result of twisted religious morality being imposed on society. If life begins at conception, then a woman is committing murder every time she ovulates and a man is commuting millions of murders with each ejaculation. That conclusion is absurd because the idea that life begins at conception makes no sense. Nor does the ban on stem cell research.

The ban imposed by Bush was based on an untenable moral framework compounded by biological illiteracy and religious zeal. The ban is appropriate to the Taliban but not the people of this great country.

Into the scientific void created by Bush stepped a number of other countries. In the interim, the United States became a second-class research base in this field behind Australia, Singapore, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. Those are the countries now better positioned to make the most important advances in stem cell research. Lifting the ban will not produce results overnight because we must now overcome the inertia of lost opportunity and attract back to the United States the great minds that fled the ban. Grants need to be written, and make their way to the funding agencies for review. But with concerted support from the National Institutes of Health, and an aggressive effort by our scientists, the United States can once again exert leadership in biomedical research. Not one day too soon.