The Empire Strikes Back

August 25, 2010

Brit Trogen


It's a classic battle of the light side versus the dark. On the one hand you have the forces of knowledge, research and enlightenment; struggling to end suffering like Parkinson's and spinal chord injury. On the other, the forces of ignorance; zealots who refuse to listen to the voice of reason, clinging to outdated dogma. Right?


Well... not quite.


In 2009, on his first day in office, President Obama overturned restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. I, like most others in the scientific community, rejoiced. After eight years of paralyzing restrictions under the Bush regime, Obama's first move seemed to signify the beginning of a new era.


Now, a federal district judge has blocked this executive order, ruling that it is illegal for federal money to be distributed for work that leads to (or results from) "the destruction of an embryo." And while an appeal is in the works from Obama's side, this new ruling might lead to an even more restrictive atmosphere than the Bush regime, which allowed restricted federal funding after the stage of cell line creation. 


I have to admit, Nightlight Christian Adoptions (the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to this ruling) are looking pretty much like Darth Vadar to me right now. It doesn't get much more dark side than going for an all out ban on something so potentially groundbreaking. But as much as I disagree with this recent ruling, looking back, I have to wonder if perhaps no extreme is the right one in this case.


To be clear: human ES research, as it stands now, makes sense to me. An estimated 400,000 embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures are available in the United States alone, many of which would otherwise be discarded if not used in essential research. Other stem cell options so far don't measure up to the medical potential of ES. And, at least for me, the potential for life is very distinct from life itself. 


That said, should we endeavor to maintain a specified number of ES lines, rather than using embryos that might otherwise not have been necessary? Is a completely unrestricted environment the best choice? While I disagree with their beliefs, I can at least understand the view of some of those who would place themselves on the "dark side" of this debate. In the end I always go back to the quote from James A. Thomas, the guy whose lab first harvested stem cells from human embryos in 1998. “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”



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