The latest weekly article at SAGE Crossroads (entited "Deja Vu") examines similarities between the political debate over in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the 1970s and the present debate over embryonic stem cell research.
The debates then and now aren't perfectly parallel, but how society at first recoiled from and then embraced IVF foreshadowed the negative reaction to stem cells--and might well portend the outcome of the controversy. Today, IVF raises few eyebrows.
Even Kass, a leading opponent of the technology in its early days, changed his stance after the 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first "test tube baby." He recognized the joy IVF could confer by blessing infertile couples with children. Still, he remains apprehensive about the broader implications of assisted reproduction and its associated innovations. "If anybody thinks that the controversies that were started by IVF have been settled and gone away," he says, "they should rethink."
Unfortunately, Kass hasn't yet come round to endorsing embryonic stem cell research for the purpose of curing fatal diseases yet. Working around infertility is apparently more important in his hierarchy of values than healing people who are dying from their conditions.
Still, Kass - and, one hopes, the Bioethics Council - are becoming irrelevant in the face of public support and scientific progress. No-one listens to what he has to say about IVF anymore, after all. Politicians can certainly continue to hinder progress towards regenerative medicine based on embryonic stem cell research, but they can't stop it now. That said, speed is of the essence - tens of thousands of people continue to die each and every day from conditions that will be curable in a matter of years.