Trading Places, Pro-Science Religious Beliefs Were Right

Will the secular left soon attack the religious right for being pro-science?
Opinion Journal | Joseph Bottum | Nov. 28, 2007

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 10 years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicine–were 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 London’s 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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–much-ballyhooed by the press–announced 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%, 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 research–without 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-lifers–the 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.

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