I am having an interesting on-line "round table," sponsored by The Center for the Future of Medicine, which in turn, is sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The topic is stem cell research. Unfortunately, the exchange is not publicly accesible at the moment. But so far, there seem to be two threads of discussion, the scientific and the ethical--and the two threads seem to be talking past rather than to each other. Be that as it may, I have said from day one: The stem cell debate isn't a scientific controversy but a moral and ethical argument. So far, "the scientists" have not grappled with this point.
Here is an excerpt from my most recent post to the roundtable. I think it succinctly expresses my views about this issue, so I thought I would share it with the readers of Secondhand Smoke:
"The real issue here, in my view isn't so much ESCR with leftover IVF embryos. The crucial question is whether we will create human organisms explicitly for use in research. Once that occurs, we will have crossed a critical ethical line by treating these nascent humans as mere objects from their very inception. This will have serious implications, including affecting our perception about the intrinsic value of human life. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the new NAS 'ethical guidelines' would permit creating human embryos for use in research, both through sexual and asexual means. This is a line that many proponents said would not be crossed as recently as 2001. Yet, we are already striving to create cloned embryos in this country, while some political proponents of the research and the media discuss the issue as if somatic cell nuclear transfer and embryonic stem cell research are synonymous--which of course, they are not.
"If we can create embryos for use in research, where does our right to create and destroy human life for medical research end? If basic research and potential treatments are to be viewed as something of a be all and end all, why not gestate embryos, particularly if artificial uteruses come into use? Think of the science that could be conducted, the information that could be gleaned, by experimenting on more developed human life! So, where is the line to be drawn and what are the ethical bases for drawing such lines? The current idea of a 14 day limit based on the beginning of the primitive streak is purely arbitrary and, in my view, created for political purposes that basically prohibits that which cannot yet be done. But New Jersey already legalized gestating cloned fetuses through the ninth month and legislation has been introduced in various state legislatures that would only outlaw implanting cloned embryos if the intent was to take the pregnancy all the way to birth. And it is sobering to recall that we have a history in this country of permitting live fetal experimentation, during the late sixties and early seventies, justified by their 'potential' humanhood.
"So, again. These disputes are not science controversies, but rather, moral and ethical arguments. There is potentially vast scientific benefit to be gained by this research, accompanied by profound moral peril. We need accurate science to help us work through the propriety of various approaches. But in the end, science cannot tell us right from wrong."