Still squeamish about stem cells

Obama’s extension of federal funding to stem-cell research is good news. But Bush was not the only barrier to progress.

Stuart Derbyshire

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In August 2001, President George W Bush outlawed the use of government funds for all stem-cell research, except where existing stem-cell lines were used. Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced that government funds can be used to support research with all currently available stem-cell lines. My American friends and colleagues are rightly enthusiastic about this change.

Naysayers are claiming that stem-cell research has yet to deliver any medical benefits (1). This is not strictly true. In November 2008, adult stem cells were used in a spectacular windpipe transplantation (2). It is true that embryonic stem cells have yet to deliver medical advances, but the barriers and hostility thrown at such research are at least partly to blame. Until yesterday, American scientists pursuing stem-cell research could not receive government funds and had to separate their stem-cell research from anything government-funded. Often this meant creating entirely new research buildings and infrastructure with obvious duplication, waste and aggravation. Beyond that, researchers had to put up with a ‘Frankenstein’ tag endorsed by the highest office in the land. As noted elsewhere, embryonic stem-cell researchers now know the presidency is behind them (3).

In lifting the ban on government funding for embryo stem-cell research, Obama was careful to say the full promise of stem-cell research remains unknown and ‘it should not be overstated’ (4). It is the very nature of research that we do not and cannot know what will happen in the future. There is great expectation that stem-cell research will revolutionise transplant medicine and provide cures for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and many other medical problems, but it may not happen. It is important that scientists be free to pursue their work so that whatever breakthroughs might be coming are allowed to come sooner.

Unfortunately, Obama was also careful not to take a position on the ‘Dickey-Wicker amendment’ that currently prevents government funding to create new stem-cell lines. In part, that is because it is up to Congress to overturn the ban. But by saying that stem-cell research ‘should be done in compliance with federal law’, Obama is also putting distance between himself and the scientific use of embryos in the here and now (5). The essential compromise put forward by Bush in 2001 has not been fundamentally challenged.

The absence of a more positive stand on stem-cell research is not surprising because there is widespread reluctance to champion the interests of humanity today. And that reluctance runs much deeper than problems associated with George Bush. Bush opposed stem-cell research because of a belief in the sanctity of embryonic life. Obama says that he supports stem-cell research because ‘as a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering’ (6). Both positions express a squeamishness about being human and acting out of a human interest to understand.

That squeamishness expresses itself in talk of ‘responsibility’, ‘caution’ and the need for ‘ethical cell-based research’, as Diana DeGette, a Democrat congresswoman from Colorado and leading advocate for stem-cell research, put it (7). Scientists involved in stem-cell research also seem to share this point of view. They emphasise their commitment to strong regulation and oversight and apologise for the nature of their work (8). It doesn’t apparently occur to them to argue that work with embryos, which are invisible to the naked eye and can provide knowledge for humanity, ought to be pursued as an interest in and of itself.

The emphasis on moving forward responsibly paints an odd and distorted picture of stem-cell science. There is nothing irresponsible about pushing on to a more medically precise understanding of what we are and how we work. These things are uniquely good because they open up the possibilities for further human action. Only someone who does not believe in humanity would think that a bad thing.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, UK. He spoke at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Chicago last week and is currently visiting colleagues at the University of Birmingham in Alabama, USA.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire urged American scientists to stop stemming the research and declared it was time to blow away the barriers to stem-cell science. Jennie Bristow said that we shouldn’t dodge the debate on stem cells. John Gillott looked at how scientific endeavour is stifled by religious and government officials. spiked and the Wellcome Collection led an online debate on the best and worst of medicine. Or read more at spiked issue Genetics.

(1) Is it just me?, Telegraph blogs, 9 March 2009

(2) See Let’s blow away all the barriers to stem-cell science, by Stuart Derbyshire

(3) The reappliance of science, Comment is Free, 9 March 2009

(4) YouTube

(5) Obama leaving some issues about stem cells to Congress, New York Times, 9 March 2009

(6) Obama overturns Bush policy on stem cell research, Guardian, 9 March 2009

(7) Obama leaving some issues about stem cells to Congress, New York Times, 9 March 2009

(8) ‘Japan readies rules that allow research’, Science 2001, 293: 775; ‘Embryonic stem-cell research – the case for…’, Nature Medicine 2001 7: 396-397; Stemming scientific endeavour, by John Gillott

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