The biggest ethical and scientific debate of the early 2000s has all but disappeared. And we need to tell people why.
Some issues in presidential politics have staying power. Twelve years ago, everyone was talking about immigration, abortion, and terrorism. Today, everyone is still talking about immigration, abortion, and terrorism.
But another issue that gripped the public and had candidates shouting from the debate stages then has been all but forgotten today: embryonic stem cell research.
Here's a quick refresher: Stem cells exist in every multicellular organism and have the ability to differentiate into different types of tissue, whether it be heart, brain, lung, liver or other kinds of human tissue. The stem cells everyone is interested in — called "pluripotent" stem cells — have the ability to become any type of tissue, anywhere in the body.
Scientists have long seen these cells as a potential cure or therapy for degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as paralysis, heart disease, and a host of others. A decade ago, the only way to derive "pluripotent" stem cells was to conceive a human embryo in a test tube, and then kill it.
Then-president George W. Bush issued a moratorium on new federal funding for this type of stem cell, sparking outrage from across the aisle. The move was roundly condemned as "anti-scientific," and Bush was lampooned by the media, liberal politicians, and cartoonists as a peddler of dark-age superstitions.
In 2009, a newly-elected President Obama immediately lifted the moratorium and poured new funding into embryonic stem cell research. Since then, countless embryos have been destroyed with taxpayer dollars, but to this day, the technology has failed to yield the miracle cures Americans were promised.
And that's only one reason the debate has gotten so quiet. During the years since the moratorium, a different kind of stem cell — tissue-specific "somatic" or adult stem cells — have been used to successfully treat over a million-and-a-half people with conditions ranging from blindness and cancer, to juvenile diabetes and arthritis. Without killing human embryos.
And in 2006, a technique pioneered by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka all but rendered embryonic stem cells obsolete. He discovered a way to induce pluripotency, causing adult cells to mimic embryonic stem cells. His method has since been developed to the point where researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used it to grow a genetically-compatible, beating human heart from a patient's skin cells!
This method is actually superior to the embryonic method, because it eliminates the risk of rejection. The freshly-grown tissue from adult stem cells is, quite literally, the patient's own. All of this led Christopher White at Crux to declare the stem cell controversy effectively over. President Bush was right, White argues, and so were the legions of pro-life activists who supported alternatives to embryo-destructive research. The stem cell debate didn't just fizzle out. On an important level, it was soundly won by those who insisted that medical science could advance without turning human life at its earliest stages into a disposable commodity.
Yet still the issue hasn't gone away. Our government continues to fund ethically indefensible embryonic research. But the fact that such research is now so unnecessary has taken the moral and rhetorical wind out of advocates' sails.
I want to be really clear: Embryo-destructive research exploits and destroys unique human lives, and it should be opposed even if such research could make the paralyzed walk. Doing or condoning evil that good may result is still evil, and we must defend the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.
But very often, as in this case, the right thing turns out to be the more promising and successful option. In the late, great stem cell debate, it's clearer now than it ever has been: Saving life doesn't require destroying it.
Originally posted at breakpoint.org.