Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stem cell breakthrough?

I didn't get a chance to blog about this when the news first came out, but it's still worth noting. According to the AP, "Researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University reported Sunday that the stem cells they drew from fluid donated by pregnant women hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells."

This is still a very preliminary finding, but it holds some promise of taking some of the politics out of the stem cell controversy, which would bode well for real progress. The contention has been that stem cells harvested from an embryo are more versatile than stem cells (cells with the potential to become or replicate any number of organs) harvested from adults. But harvesting them from embryos destroys the embryo, and for a significant number of pro-life Americans that is a moral problem -- perhaps not equivalent to outright murder, but the destruction of something that would grow to be a human under the proper conditions.

It is at least morally questionable to take tax money (forcibly by definition) from people to fund research they believe to be immoral. That's why the question of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will always be politically contentious. But if cells with similar promise can be retrieved from amniotic fluid without harming either the mother or the fetus, the problem would seem to disappear.

Even if the promise of amniotic stem cells is as great as currently hoped, I suspect the political controversy won't disappear for a while. Scientists do believe continued research on embryonic cells is still justified, and those who favor it don't seem content to have it funded privately. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is part of Nancy Pelosi's "100 Hours" agenda. Both sides are locked into viewing the issue from the perspective of the political process, which is rife with opposition and polarization. Once you've entered the political game it is all too easy to begin to act as if it's the only game -- that nothing good will happen unless you win politically. And there's a certain enjoyment to playing the political game that regrettably I cannot deny.

If amniotic stem cells really are promising, however, eventually their promise could make the political game irrelevant. Good.

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