Seething and Thinking

The Old Gray Lady isn’t cute when she’s angry. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The New York Times editorial page’s longstanding antagonism to the Bush Administration is well documented. Still, the only dignified editorial response to last month’s news that two independent teams of scientists had reported having turned human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells was “Hallelujah” – or, for the staidly secular Times, some less parochial but equally enthusiastic expression of joy.

After all, if the reported results are duplicated by other labs and various technical obstacles overcome, there will now be an inexhaustible supply of human stem cells available for research – and the controversy over the destruction of embryos to procure stem cells for research will have been effectively rendered moot.

Instead of rejoicing, though, The Times just seethed. On December 3, an editorial in the paper petulantly conceded that the new discovery “could help free scientists from shackles that have long hobbled their efforts.” But, it hastened to add, “any claim that Mr. Bush’s moral stance drove scientists to this discovery must be greeted with particular skepticism.” The editorial ended with the hope that “the next president will quickly jettison all restrictions on stem cell research.”

The moral stance referenced is, of course, the President’s long and unwavering insistence that federal funds for stem cell research be limited to projects using non-embryonic stem cells or certain already-produced lines of embryonic cells.

The Times’ skepticism notwithstanding, it is at least arguable that the White House’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research and its encouragement of alternate approaches to procuring stem cells may in fact have contributed to the happy turn of events. After all, if Mr. Bush’s steadfastness constituted “shackles” that “hobbled” efforts to consider embryos an unobjectionable source of stem cells, then it is certainly reasonable to imagine that his resolve may have played a role in the development of alternative sources for the cells.

Whatever role the President may or may not have played, however, what cannot be denied is that, in light of the recent breakthrough, the idea of destroying nascent life for scientific research is now more easily seen for what it is, namely, the destroying of nascent life for scientific research.

To be sure, the potential of such research was always clear. If stem cells can be induced to develop into pancreatic cells, they will hold the promise of curing diabetes; if they can be convinced to turn into dopamine-secreting brain cells, they may be able to reverse Parkinson’s disease; if into muscle, heart, liver or blood cells, they will figure prominently in treatments for muscular dystrophy, cardiac disease, liver failure and leukemia. And the list is potentially much longer.

But in the headlong rush to gain access to the potential benefits of stem cell research, some were, one might say, blinded by science.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue of utilizing fertilized embryos for research is complex. While some Orthodox Jewish rabbis and organizations concluded that Judaism would encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, others had deep reservations.

Now, thankfully, it seems that resort to destroying embryos may no longer be necessary for stem cell research to take place. And so, instead of taking umbrage, bashing Bush and hoping for the destruction of future embryos, The Times’ editorialists might better have reflected a moment or two on a quote featured in a November 22 story on their paper’s own front page.

Dr. James A. Thomson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that in 1998 first successfully removed stem cells from embryos. His laboratory was one of the two that have now reported the new way of turning ordinary human skin cells into very similar, if not identical, stem cells.

Reflecting on those developments, Dr. Thomson, the pioneer of procuring stem cells from embryos destroyed in the process, told The Times’ science writer Gina Kolata that “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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4 Responses


    Rabbi Shafran: I agree with you that the Times’ response was petulant and childish. Alas, it was not surprising. It seems that the Times’ anti-Bush animus trumps everything, even rejoicing over a major scientific breakthrough that as a major side benefit resolves some very difficult ethical dilemmas.

  2. David says:

    Here’s another intereting take on that ivory tower from this blog:

    Now They Tell Us…
    Posted by Ryan T. Anderson on December 11, 2007, 9:55 AM
    A few weeks ago we all heard the announcement of a major scientific breakthrough that allowed scientists to create the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells (called induced pluripotent stem cells) but without using or destroying embryos. Joseph Bottum wrote about the implications here, and I covered the story for the Weekly Standard.

    In the aftermath of this news, we’ve been hearing surprising things from the scientists. They now acknowledge that there really are moral concerns in embryo-destructive research, and that they’ve been concerned about this all along.

    So, just after the news broke, Dr. James Thomson–the scientist who first isolated human embryonic stem cells–told the New York Times: “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”

    Now, in another New York Times story, we hear Dr. Shinya Yamanaka–the scientist behind the latest breakthrough–tell readers what motivated him to discover the new technique:

    “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

    Someone should let the New York Times editorial page editors know. They recently opined:

    Any claim that Mr. Bush’s moral stance drove scientists to this discovery must be greeted with particular skepticism. The primary discoverer of the new techniques is a Japanese scientist who was not subject to the president’s restrictions.

  3. Larry Lennhoff says:

    I find it unlikely the Bush ban directly contributed to this discovery, which was made in Japan and was the direct result of research they did on embryonic stem cells. As Dr. Meyers of Pharyngula states:

    This discovery is probably going to become a political football in short order, with the far right politicians who have restricted American research into embryonic stem cells claiming vindication. However, let’s point out some realities here. Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It’s going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful — science doesn’t take just one result from a few labs and accept it as gospel truth. And we definitely need to figure out better ways of switching the four genes on. Figuring that out will require more research into how organisms switch cells into the ES state in situ — we can’t figure that out from these cells with inserted, artificial gene constructs.

    Another essential point is that scientists are excited about this work because it opens up avenues for basic research into development and differentiation. These cells are NOT useable for therapies…the immediate, practical applications that the electorate wants from stem cell research. They also cannot be used for reproductive cloning, although that won’t trouble most people. These are cells with retroviral infections, potential unknown mutations, and that have genetic modifications that make them prone to collapse into cancers. We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It’s going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we’ll be able to do that, it isn’t going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.

  4. Ori says:

    Larry Lennhoff, does this research have to be done on human embryonic stem cells? As far I know, nobody objects to research on chimpanzee embryonic stem cells on moral grounds.

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