“There Must be Another Way”: Nobel Prizes Go to Ethical Stem Cell Researcher, Critic of China’s One-Child Policy
- By Alliance Defending Freedom
- Posted Nov 6, 2012
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by Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden
Annually, the Nobel Prizes generate intense debate about the state of the world’s cultures, scientific pursuits and political priorities. Conceived by the inventor of dynamite as a more peaceful legacy, the prizes have often been subject to charges of political correctness, so much so that an aphorism attributed to Alfred Nobel by the Foundation bearing his name – “humbug is the biggest industry of our age” – begs to be applied to some of its more head-scratching selections.
Remember Al Gore’s Peace Prize for hawking global warming or Barack Obama’s for “strengthening… cooperation between peoples?”
So 2012 turned out to be a Nobel season to remember after the prize committees made not one, but two selections in the same year that honored laureates who can truly be said to have elevated the dignity of human life.
The prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared by Shinya Yamanaka of Japan for his discovery that adult stem cells can be genetically “reprogrammed” to act like embryonic stem cells—offering the ability to regenerate multiple types of cell in the human body (so-called “pluripotency”), but without the ethical complication of destroying human life that embryonic stem cell research poses.
When Yamanaka became involved in stem cell research in the late 1990s, a parade of molecular biologists had gone down the same road for years, trying to coax cells “harvested” from the inner, early-forming cell walls of human embryos into “lines” that could be replicated for research. They sought ways to stimulate these embryonic stem cells into particular types of cells that could form tissues such as nerve cells and heart muscle cells. Yet Yamanaka chose a different and much more challenging course, involving the use of viruses to inject a handful of genes that regulate pluripotency into ordinary adult cells. His painstaking research, reminiscent of but far outdoing Thomas Edison’s innumerable attempts to find the best filament for the incandescent light bulb, took years to produce fruit.
Why would a brilliant young research scientist risk a promising career in a burgeoning field to go his own way, especially when his way posed far more obstacles and challenges? This was true at least initially, when the path Yamanaka took seemed to offer far less in the practical payoffs of funding and recognition that are the stock in trade of scientific research.
In an interview with The New York Times, Yamanaka explained that when he was a young assistant professor, he was invited by a friend to look into a microscope at a human embryo. “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” Yamanaka said. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
Yamanaka found another way, and his way has revolutionized the science of stem cell research and made human life-destroying embryonic stem cell research increasingly irrelevant.
The view that “there must be another way” also motivates the life work of the Nobel laureate for literature, Mo Yan of the People’s Republic of China.
Mo Yan’s best known novel, Frog (regrettably not yet available in English), tells the story of a character loosely based on the author’s own aunt, who begins her career as a revered midwife in a rural province, only to become the hated tool of “family planning officials” after the inauguration of the one-child policy in the early 1980s. The novel includes gripping scenes such as the drowning suicide of a pregnant mother who prefers death to a forced abortion at the hands of family planners, and the demolition of the houses of neighbors of a pro-life woman in an effort to turn the community against the dissenter.
Are these selections emblematic of a global shift toward a more pro-life culture? Hardly.
What they do reflect, however, is the hopeful possibility that the brutal consequences of policies that denigrate the precious value of human life may now be subject to open (and hopefully honest) examination.
Author: Alliance Defending Freedom