The Ethics of Stem Cell Research
27 Jun, 2007 05:43 pm
Arthur Caplan is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He was written an article on the MSNBC website that addresses the new work on reprogramming cells to produce totipotent stem cells.
He claims that the new work will not replace conventional creation of embryonic stem cell lines using embryos because the new procedure has only been shown to work in mice and because it involves retrovirus vectors. This may be true, although Rudi Jaenisch seems to be more optimistic [see Reprogramming Somatic Cells].
I'm interested in another part of Caplan's essay where he says,
As much as critics of this field of research would like to have you believe that human embryos in dishes are people, that moral argument is not compelling.What Caplan fears is that those who are opposed to destroying embryos will use this new work to reinforce their opinion that a ban must be enforced. This is almost certainly correct but there's little that he can do to change their minds.
Human embryos in dishes are not people or even potential people. They are, at best, possible potential people.
Frozen embryos in infertility clinics face a fate of certain destruction anyway. The moral case against using them, or cloned embryos, which have almost zero chance of becoming people, is no less compelling because progress has been made in another area of research.
The existence of a new way to perhaps make embryonic-like stem cells is not enough to make frozen embryos and cloned embryos off-limits for American scientists or for research relying on federal funds.
Those in favor of human embryonic stem cell research, and that is the majority of Americans according most polls, including one done by CNN just last month, do not have to change their minds about the morality of such research even when another avenue for creating embryonic-like cells is found in mice.
What puzzles me is that Caplan argues the case that these embryos are not humans—in fact they are not even "possible potential" humans. This seems to be typical of the sort of debate that passes for ethics these days. I don't get it.
For those of us who are pro-abortion the argument makes no sense at all. We are already committed to the concept that real potential humans can be destroyed so the destruction of earlier stages poses no problem whatsoever. We simply don't care to debate whether embryos at the pre-blastula stage are human or not since the decision has no bearing on whether they should be destroyed.
For those who oppose abortion, and the destruction of embryos, the declaration that they are not even "possible potential" humans rings hollow. For them, the issue is not going to be settled by scientists. If it were, it would not be an "ethical" issue at all but a simple scientific problem. For many of them the facts are quite obvious. God created man and woman to make babies and any direct interference in that process is an attempt to disrupt the process that God intended.
This is a group who distrust scientists from the get-go. The idea that they are going to allow men in white lab coats to poke at human embryos just in order to advance their careers is a non-starter. Remember, most of this group doesn't even believe in evolution or a 4.5 billion year old Earth. Why should they believe what scientists have to say about embryos?
So what's the point of making the argument about the "humanness" of embryos, especially from someone who is director of bioethics at a major university? Who is he trying to convince, George Bush? Where are Mooney and Nisbet when we need them? Caplan needs a lesson on
I have recently discovered that there are many moral realists in philosophy departments. This group believes that there is an underlying "truth" behind every ethical problem and it is the goal of ethical reasoning to discover this "truth." I wonder what the "truth" is about destroying embryos in order to create stem cells? I would have thought that the definition of moral truth depends on your cultural/religious background but I'm told that this "ethical relativism" is very much a minority position among philosophers.
[Hat Tip: Shalini at Scientia Natura: Stem cell breakthrough]
Originally posted at Sandwalk.