About 10 years ago, I was taken to lunch at a little place in the San Francisco Bay area, and a young woman scientist explained an idea so new that she had to draw a picture of it on a napkin. Cells of a very early-stage human embryo are all alike, she said, and they have the ability to turn into any cell type of the human body.
If we knew how that worked, she said, we could make human tissue that could be transplanted and fix broken hearts or livers or brains as easily as we fix broken bones.
Disease like cancer could be understood and a disease like Parkinson's or spinal-cord injuries could be cured, not just treated with years of costly care.
She asked if I would research the ethical and religious issues of human embryos. It involved using embryos being discarded from fertility clinics after couples had completed their families. She didn't know if it would work, but the lab she worked with wanted to try to create pluripotent (many possible powers) cells.
I found that religions disagreed on when human life began, the moral status of a human embryo or embryos in research. But most faiths did agree that research on how to heal suffering was critically important.
Human embryonic stem cells were successfully grown in 1998. Most people applauded the news, but some faiths were alarmed. And for the next decade began a fight, led by the Bush administration, not about the research but about the politics of the research. Scientists and patients watched as the issue was fought out in the Congress and the streets, not in the labs or classrooms, and watched as vital federal money and public oversight was withheld by a president who stood against even his own party.
Despite this, extraordinary research continued—in other countries, and in states like Illinois and California where taxpayers decided stem-cell research was too important to be held hostage by a few religious beliefs, however deep, in a country devoted to a pluralistic democracy.
We are a country desperate for medical therapies that are cheaper, better and more widely available. We also know that only public funding can ensure transparency and regulation. Now we are ready to learn how pluripotent these cells really are now that science is in its rightful place, at the edge of a hopeful and powerful new future.
Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical humanities and bioethics and is the director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
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