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What does it mean to respect human life? That question is at the heart of the current debate swirling around research into human embryonic stem cells, and answering it is no easy task. George W. Bush’s solution is a policy he announced in August 2001, based on the idea that each and every embryo is a life too precious to sacrifice for any cause.

But that policy, which forbids federal funding of research involving any embryonic-stem-cell line created after President Bush’s announcement, leaves some 400,000 embryos from in-vitro fertilization services (11,000 of which have already been donated for research) in frozen-storage limbo at U.S. fertility clinics.

For many advocates of stem cell research, respect for life includes a profound belief that these embryos have the potential to unlock mysteries of illness and health, and of human life itself. On this view, each unused embryo represents an opportunity to treat and even cure a host of currently intractable ailments – paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, cancer. For supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research, leaving such an opportunity on ice represents a sacrifice of something precious, and a failure to respect the lives of people suffering from such diseases.

It should come as no surprise that Technology Review favors advancing embryonic-stem-cell research. We’ve been rooting for stem cell science since 1998, when then associate editor Antonio Regalado first wrote about a small cadre of researchers struggling to isolate and cultivate embryonic stem cells. It was one of the first times that a mainstream publication had covered this emerging field, and as we worked on the piece, we wondered if the research might be too speculative to merit a cover story. We worried that publicity might endanger the field – even the researchers themselves – by drawing unwanted attention to it. But we never imagined, in the biotech-friendly Clinton years, that the biggest obstacle to embryonic-stem-cell science would be the U.S. government.

As contributing writer Charles C. Mann explains in “Braving Medicine’s Frontier,” the Bush policy was not at first blush a terribly restrictive one. But the administration’s policy turned out to be the central knot in what would become a horrific bureaucratic snarl. Four years later, U.S. stem cell researchers are still struggling to free themselves of the mess, while those in other countries, including South Korea, are pushing ahead.

When TR went to press, a majority in the U.S. Congress was trying to pass legislation that would end the restrictions Bush imposed, Bush was promising to veto the bill, and proposed alternative measures were clouding the debate. Whether or not any of these bills becomes law, it’s clearly time for legislative action that will permit U.S. stem cell science to thrive.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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