If the news of major breakthroughs in cell research should turn out to be correct, we are about to witness something like victory in the fight over embryonic stem cells.
And that will open a nest of interesting questions, beginning with this one: All those editorialists and columnists who have, over the past ten years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicinewere they really interested in technology and health, or were they just using all that as a handy stick with which to whack their political opponents?
The news actually broke this summer, when Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka announced that he had found a technique to transform cultured mouse skin cells into cells nearly identical to embryonic stem cells. As Nature magazine, pointed out, if something similar works in humans, a simple skin biopsy could be used to create embryonic stem cell equivalents "without using embryos or even eggs."
But the topic has bubbled up again with the report from the Daily Telegraph that Ian Wilmut, the cloner of Dolly the sheep and the world's most famous biological researcher, is abandoning cloning. Instead, he's chosen to follow Yamanaka's lead: "a way," as the Telegraph explained, "to create human embryo stem cells without the need for human eggs, which are in extremely short supply, and without the need to create and destroy human cloned embryos, which is bitterly opposed by the prolife movement."
Yamanaka's research has received at least one confirmation from an American team, and though the technical details of his "de-differentiation" method are not yet completely clear, the first reports are very promising.
Certainly more promising than cloning. A report in Nature last weekmuch-ballyhooed by the pressannounced the confirmation by an Australian team of the successful cloning of monkey embryos for the creation of embryonic stem cells. But the reported success rate was just 0.07 percent, and the Japanese technique for de-differentiating fully formed adult cells back down to embryonic stem cells has already shown itself to work at a much, much higher rate.
In other words, scientists may now be able to have the embryonic stem cells we've been told they need for researchwithout creating and destroying embryos to get them. If so, the argument is over.
Or, maybe, the argument is just beginning, for this news turns on its head everything in what the nation's newspapers have delivered to us as a story of blinkered pro-lifers vs. courageous scientists.
The people who turn out actually to have believed in the power of science are the pro-lifersthe ones who said that a moral roadblock is not, in point of fact, an outrageous hindrance, for scientists will always find another, less-objectionable way to achieve their goals. President Bush's refusal of federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines didn't halt major stem-cell advances, any more than the prohibition against life-threatening research on human subjects, such as the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, stopped the advance of medical treatments.
For those who attacked the pro-lifers in the name of science, however, things look a little different. As Maureen L. Condic explained to First Things readers this year in her careful survey, "What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells," the promises of medical breakthroughs were massively overblown by the media.
But there were reasons for all the hype. I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America's religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.
With these purposes now severed by the Japanese de-differentiation technique, which way will it break?
The answer is, quite possibly, toward a rejection of science by the mainstream press. Since the 1960s, abortion has skewed American politics in strange and unnatural ways, and the cloning debates are no exception. This morning in the New York Times, John Tierney has a long article called "Are Scientists Playing God? It Depends on Your Religion." It's a little unfortunately timed, given the news from England about Wilmut's change of heart, but the theme is that American Christians and European post-Christians are unlike the Chinese, Koreans, and other Easterners with no history of opposition to science.
The whole idea seems more than a little peculiar, when one reflects on the birthplaces of modern science. And yet, Tierney sees something that is, from his perspective, genuinely hard to explain: the left in America and Europe supports destructive embryonic research, while it increasingly rejects genetically modified "Frankenfoods."
Oh, he admits, there have been some "unlikely alliances." As he notes, "When conservative intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama campaigned for Congress to ban embryo cloning, some environmental activists like Jeremy Rifkin joined them. A Green Party leader in Germany, Voker Beck, referred to cloned embryonic stem-cell research as 'veiled cannibalism.'" But he can't quite see how his description of these alliances as "unlikely" undermines his thesis that there's something philosophical that unites the Christian right with the post-Christian left, and makes them both different from the all-accepting Buddhist philosophies of the Far East.
Shake loose from the narrative of antiscience fundamentalists and pro-science liberals, however, and a different story starts to be visible. Abortion skewed the political discussion of all this, pinning the left to a defense of science it doesn't actually hold. The more natural line is agitation against Frankenfoods and all genetic modification, particularly given the environmentalism to which the campaign against global warming is tying the left.
Narratives about positions on public policy are like enormous steamships: It takes a long time to turn them around. But if the news of stem-cell breakthroughs prove accurate, we may well see over the next few years a gradual reversal in news stories and editorials. Watch for it, now that abortion is out of the equation: Much less hype about all the miracle cures that stem cells will bring us, more suspicion about the cancers and genetic pollution that may result, and just about the same amount of bashing of religious believersthis time for their ignorant support of science.