Upon close reading, it really does seem as if the basic moral quandary in stem-cell research has now been overcome. That moral quandary was real, and it is a mark of a certain non-religious fundamentalism that some enthusiasts for the research refused to acknowledge that the objections were indeed serious. But we're facing another moment when science in effect rescues us from our political and moral impasse. There's reason to hope it can impact our debate in other ways. One day, one hopes, any trade-off between environmental responsibility and economic growth might be rendered moot by new energy sources that enable us to maintain our economically and technologically advanced society without turning the Arctic into Club Med. Science has also enabled humans to have fuller sex lives without any number of diseases that were once fatal and are now manageable - from syphillis to herpes to (almost) HIV. RU-486 may well render the state's role in policing pregnancy irrelevant to many women. None of this makes the moral issues behind these debates any less relevant - the utilitarian use of human life, the ethical obligation not to damage our planet, the morality that should underpin our sexual aspects of our life as much as every other, the moral status of an embryo or early fetus. But it does make the practical impact of those debates less zero-sum, and the theoretical debates that much more ... theoretical. In the end our knowledge doesn't only damn us; it can also save us.
(Photo: a human embryonic stem (hES) cell colony on a mouse embryonic fibroblast (MEF) feeder layer.)
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