The stem-cell genie is out of the research bottle. If we command it sensibly, this unexpected servant will help us lead much healthier, longer lives. But if we fail to force the genie to conform to our ethical sense, this future regenerator of tissue and rebuilder of organs and brains could brutalize and demoralize mankind.
Sounds dramatic, but that is what is at stake in the stem-cell revolution. We face a decision that is literally a matter of life and death.
At first, the issue roiling the Bush White House was framed narrowly: Should the federal government sponsor scientific research using embryonic stem cells to cure diseases? Underlying that: Does the saving of today's human life _ and alleviation of untold suffering and present pain _ justify the sacrifice of the development of even the most remotely potential human life?
Most people's answer is yes. The principled minority that disagrees suggests we experiment with adult stem cells for the next few years, and _ if they turn out to be not versatile enough to become the desired tissue _ only then consider trying embryonic cells. Many scientists counter that such deliberate delay risks millions of lives.
The practical note that intrudes itself is the newly out-of-the-bottle nature of the genie. Whether driven by private funds here or by the investment of public money by foreign governments, embryonic cells will be used to achieve breakthroughs to cures.
The cells being used _ from embryos no bigger than the period that ends this sentence _ are not only frozen cells from fertility clinics destined to be discarded (those are the least objectionable to those who believe that life begins at the instant of conception). Private laboratories are already creating embryos for the purpose of harvesting their cells to fight disease. No White House refusal to finance with federal dollars can stop this.
The question becomes: How do we exert control of the genie?
The president has been meeting with ethicists to wrestle with this, but should not try to decide the huge issue alone or to address it piecemeal or hastily. He should listen to the national academies of science and medicine, soon to go public with recommendations. He should then address a joint session of Congress with stem-cell budget policy and legislative proposals to stimulate thoughtful hearings and attract wide support. A couple of suggestions:
Start a race among scientists: Finance both adult and embryonic stem-cell research equally and heavily. If cells from adults surprise scientists by creating the targeted regeneration, so much the less controversial; if not, no time or lives would be wasted.
Couple this with a permanent, rotating advisory commission on bioethics, members appointed by Congress and the president, to recommend guidelines on all facets of genetic research, not just stem cells. Launch this at a White House Conference on Genes; include enough dissidents to avert groupthink.
Ask this commission to assess "somatic cell nuclear transfer," in which the nucleus of an egg is activated with genetic material from the intended patient, creating cells to overcome the danger of rejection of foreign tissue.
Outlaw cloning of humans. Ian Wilmot, Scotland's cloner of Dolly, is an informed opponent of human replication; he knows how many of his attempts to clone sheep failed, and believes similar attempts with humans would be horrifying.
Down that monstrous human-cloning road lies production of slaves for organs, demographic manipulation and notions of master races. Better to say no now and let future generations decide for themselves how far to let the genie go.
On the eve of this millennium, the New York Times asked its Op-Ed columnists to take a long, long look ahead. My contribution was headlined "Why Die?"
The title was a fanciful attention-getter for an optimistic thought: As science conquers disease and replaces worn-out organs, humans will be living much, much longer. Neuroscience will match biology's pace, enabling brains to regenerate so that humans can live productively even as we pass the century mark. The genius of our stem-cell genie bids fair to speed longevity's day.
The trick is for us to make certain we call the cadence on the march of progress. That means public support of, tied tightly to our ethical control of, embryonic stem-cell research.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service