On the stage of a microscope’s slide, human embryonic stem cells can have a holy glow about them. Perhaps it is just the way the light strikes a colony of cells, which resembles a raspberry drained of its color. Many people bestow holiness upon embryonic stem cells. Spending a week shadowing researchers at one of Northwestern University’s medical laboratories, I could understand why some individuals see stem cells as a medical breakthrough on par with penicillin, and others view them as a sacred form of life.
Those perspectives on the significance of embryos are at the heart of the debate. Any legislation on stem cell research will have its faithful dissenters, and people of faith and conscience should continue to listen to one another’s views. Yet we must also ask what best serves the common good. Our nation needs a new policy on stem cells, one which—like the bill passed by a bipartisan Congress, but vetoed by President Bush, this summer—would allow fertility-clinic clients, with full consent and without pay, to donate unused embryos to research.
Unless key decision makers change their minds on this issue, it will take several more years before the federal government reaches a compromise about the way forward. Jonathan Moreno, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has little hope of Congress developing a veto-proof majority on stem cell legislation, but he says that states will likely take further action. California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey have earmarked millions for research on embryonic stem cell lines, while several other states support the research with undesignated funding. Private companies offer another source of money.