A workable if imperfect compromise on a highly contentious issue suddenly unraveled this week in a federal court in the District of Columbia. The effect could be disastrous, as important scientific research has been jeopardized by a ruling in a case animated by absolutist right-to-life scruples that defy compromise.
The sad irony is that the research in question, involving embryonic stem cells, is all about finding ways to save and enhance lives. There are no guarantees, but this research is aimed at finding ways to cure life-destroying ailments ranging from diabetes to cancer, from heart disease to Parkinson's - perhaps even repairing broken spinal cords that doom sufferers to wheelchairs.
The ethical problem is nevertheless profound and worthy of respect. In gathering the cells, embryos are destroyed. But this differs from abortion in that the egg is fertilized in a laboratory. Indeed, thousands of embryos lie frozen and discarded in fertility clinics around the country.
President George W. Bush, no shirker in the anti-abortion cause, agonized in weighing the potential for good against the ethical objections. He opted to solve the dilemma by allowing limited use of stem cells already on hand.
In March, 2009, President Obama allowed the research to expand under what he said would be strict guidelines. He too acknowledged the moral danger, promising Americans that "we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."
So research has proceeded, generally without public controversy outside pro-life activist circles - until U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth unexpectedly handed down a ruling this week in favor of plaintiffs who argued that Mr. Obama's executive order was unlawful because it defied the will of Congress.
Federal law prohibits federal funding for research that destroys human embryos. The Obama Administration, like the Bush administration before it, had believed that if private money were used in developing stem-cell colonies, federal funding could legally come into play.
It is hard to know whether the judge is on good legal ground. As the future of this research is now in serious doubt, the Obama Administration says it will appeal. But a better remedy could and should come from Congress: Let it make its will known. During the Bush years, Congress twice passed legislation approving federal funding for stem-cell research, only to have it vetoed.
Polling has shown most Americans think the best moral choice lies in pursuing research that has the potential to be a boon to humanity. Stem-cell research is just that kind.