Much in the news this past week is the research breakthrough--by teams in both Japan and America--in which human skin cells have been reprogrammed to behave as embryonic stem cells. (Embryonic stem cells are thought to hold great medical promise for curing and preventing diseases and birth defects.) The news was welcomed by most, because using embryonic stem cells is ethically controversial (and thus has faced political barriers).
This breakthrough is good news, and there's reason to be glad of it. But perhaps I should add a bit of perspective to what the popular media has offered on this subject.
First, as far as the actual technology and day-to-day research is concerned, last week's announcement doesn't change much. The privately-funded labs conducting research in this area have all along been much less excited about embryonic stem cells than have the media and politicians. Embryonic stem cells have not--for some time now--been as promising a choice as the public has been led to believe. (And, incidentally, the broader technology still remains long on promise and hype and relatively short on success. I believe that progress will eventually lead to some successes, but a great deal of work remains before that is realized, and--although only time will tell--the number and type of conditions that will be treatable by the resulting "therapies" is likely to be far less than what hype suggests.)
Second, the push to use embryonic stem cells will not go away. And that is because this has never been a primarily scientific issue (see the preceding paragraph). Rather, all along this has been an attempt (on the part of abortion advocates and their allies) to further marginalize the Christian view of the unborn baby (and, by extension, the view that there is a moral standard of any kind). That is, pitting the rights of "a mere lump of fetal tissue" (which, on the theistic view, is a complete human person created by God) against those of a disabled adult (who, unlike the baby in the womb, could make a persuasive argument on his own behalf) was a great ploy for further weaning the general public from its traditional belief in objective morality. Such activists are keeping quiet about this recent research announcement, but you can bet they won't let it squelch this ploy that they've long found so useful.
By the way, there have always been a few scientists who joined those activists in pushing for unlimited use of embryonic stem cells. Their motivation was slightly different. Though some may have shared a disgust for biblical morality, the campaign had a secondary goal of promoting scientism--the view that science is the only arbiter of truth and that philosophy, theology, and even ethics no longer have a place in our modern, scientific world. According to scientism, we would all be better off if we allowed science to make all the calls.
Lastly, I want to point out that the recent announcement provides another case of validation and vindication for a theistic approach to science (over against the materialist approach that still dominates). That is, scientists who are theists (like my friends at Reasons To Believe) have predicted for years that if such technology really held any promise then it would be through a methodology that was not at odds with the moral law revealed by the Creator. Breakthroughs like last week's are a continuing fulfillment of that prediction, and a further reason to go back to the theistic approach to science that gave science its birth in the first place.