The Obama campaign, and subsequently his administration, had been hinting for a long time that it would allow researchers to use federal funds to study human embryonic stem cell “lines” which had, under the policies of President Bush, been legal to study only with private funding. Considering the relatively small number of scientists actually working with human embryonic stem cells, and the even smaller number who will use federal funds anytime soon to study some of these additional cell lines, one might wonder if the media attention focused on President Obama’s decision has been disproportionately intense-especially since therapies based on human embryonic stem cells are still largely theoretical, and are years in the future.
My personal view is that media outlets likely have a set script for covering stem cell research, which would explain how they reacted within hours of the policy change, with variations on the following theme:
Researchers and patients were quickly interviewed, expressing hope that greater access to stem cell lines would accelerate the process of developing therapies for myriad diseases. Opponents of stem cell research had at least equal time, and they claimed either that this policy decision would increase the number of human embryos destroyed, or that adult, not embryonic stem cells showed the most potential for becoming effective therapies.
The first claim by opponents conveniently overlooks the reality that if excess and thus unwanted embryos are not used to generate stem cells, then they are going to be destroyed by IVF clinics as medical waste. Tens of thousands are destroyed annually at IVF clinics, with no apparent outcry. Given this scenario, making life-affirming and potentially life-saving stem cells would seem to be the pro-life alternative. The claim that there are numerous effective therapies derived from adult stem cells is misleading, and virtually every scientist agrees that human embryonic stem cells are still the “gold standard” for stem cell research. True, it will be years before new FDA-approved cell-based therapies are widely available, but that is no reason not to study both adult and embryonic stem cells.
In following these established scripts to outline well-known and opposing positions on human embryonic stem cells, the media have largely missed an opportunity to comment on the broader implications of President Obama’s policy decision. I interpret this larger message to be that complex societal debates, such as how to deal with human embryos, will be suitably viewed through the prism of ethics and prevailing morals. In contrast to much of the past decade, however, reaching a final policy will ultimately be driven by scientific evidence and intellectual debate rather than by political calculus.
The rediscovery of science as the starting point for making policy is major news that will have far-reaching impact throughout society. Thus we may soon live in a country where the Environmental Protection Agency might actually be allowed to use science to support the preservation of habitat and species. We might be entering a time when it is acceptable to note that the world has a finite capacity to sustain an ever-expanding human population. If this keeps up, we might see the day when evolution, sans creationism, is taught in science classes nationally.
A cloud is lifting, though it could settle in and once again obscure the collective vision of society in the future. Until then, I for one am happy to dance in the warm light of reason and logic once again.
Randall T. Moon is a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Washington, an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the William and Marilyn Conner Chair and Founding Director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, and a co-founder of Fate Therapeutics.