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May 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 9)

Arguments against President Obama’s Stem Cell Policies

Moral Restrictions on Scientific Research Are Imperative

  • Alternative Approaches

    In many respects, progress on alternative approaches to embryo-destructive research has, after all, been striking. In 2005, when the President’s Council on Bioethics published a white paper titled Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells, it took account of four new directions that researchers had already begun to pursue. Since then, progress has been made on all of these methods—most strikingly in what the white paper had called somatic cell dedifferentiation, the reprogramming of somatic cells in order to restore them to a pluripotent condition. 

    In the last two years, several different groups of scientists have succeeded in producing induced pluripotent stem cells.  Because producing them does not require the destruction of embryos, they offer a way to bypass the most contentious moral issue in this debate.

    Because producing them does not require human ova, and because they are patient-specific stem cells, which are less likely to be rejected by their recipients, they also have distinct scientific advantages. Indeed, on the day following President Obama’s announcement, an analysis by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times noted that the embryonic stem cell research the president had touted “has been somewhat eclipsed by new advances.”

    Wade also repeated the standard claim made by researchers: that work on embryonic stem cells should be pursued alongside alternative approaches. Were there no moral problems with research that destroys embryos, that would be true. But there are moral problems, and, therefore, it will never do simply to say that science must proceed on as many fronts as possible, as if there should be no moral limits on the conduct of research. 

    It is also worth noting here the position adopted by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) during the Clinton administration. NBAC approved stem cell research using (and, of course, destroying) embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization treatments. At the same time, however, NBAC stated that such embryo-destructive research is justifiable “only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.” Such alternatives are now available—a fact that must be taken account of in our moral reasoning.

    What embryos will be used for federally funded research under the president’s new policy? On April 17, NIH announced draft guidelines for comment before final approval. These guidelines, if put into place, will provide federal funding for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos produced but not used for in vitro fertilization. Because the draft guidelines do not propose to fund research on embryos produced solely for research purposes (either by union of egg and sperm or through cloning), they are more cautious and limited than many had anticipated.

    This does not make the use and destruction of so-called “spare” embryos morally unproblematic. The idea that embryos produced in fertility clinics but no longer wanted by their parents should now be considered a handy resource available for our other purposes ought to trouble us greatly.

    That they are destined to die in any case does not make them different from irretrievably dying patients or prisoners condemned to death. We would not congratulate ourselves upon a policy that proposed to use those classes of human subjects, but no others, for research purposes. On the contrary, our moral responsibility is, as Hans Jonas wrote when discussing experiments that were unrelated to the disease of the patient/subject, to spare them “the gratuitousness of service to an unrelated cause.”

    Moreover, we have good reason to suspect that the research for which federal funding is available may not long be limited in this way. Embryos remaining from IVF procedures are not those most desired by researchers. What they want are cloned embryos, produced in order to study disease models. Indeed, the ink was barely dry on the president’s executive order when the New York Times published an editorial calling for guidelines and legislative action that would permit funding of research creating embryos matched to specific diseases.

    Thus, in its simplistic description of the relation between morality and science, in its failure to take seriously the moral significance of the development of alternative approaches to stem cell research, and in its willingness to regard “spare” embryos as little more than a resource readily available for our purposes, the newly announced policy fails to provide the moral vision both our science and our politics need.


Readers' Comments

Posted 05/19/2009 by Analytical Chemist


Thank you, Dr. Meilaender, for the thoughtful article about embryonic stem cell policies! I rarely hear the proponents talk about anything but the promise of this research, and they vastly exaggerate its potential. I have been working in scientific research and development for 20 years, and I have yet to hear any scientist discuss the ethical aspects of any research they perform. The technological imperative seems to me to be the only driving ethic. Science needs to submit to the public, not the other way around. Scientists are not entitled to public money just because they are scientists. We need more discussions raising the points you articulately lay out in your article. I read a quote recently from a stem cell researcher to the effect that if this kind of research doesn't give you any qualms at all, you haven't thought about it enough. I just wish more scientists would heed that approach to their work and show a bit more humility.

Posted 05/08/2009 by Professor

In addition to the conflict with moral values, new stem cell policies potentially may repeat negative outcomes of the AIDS research when over almost three decades the government over-funded vaccine studies by spending hundreds of million dollars without tangible results. In the meantime, this money could have been spent for support of other high-priority biomedical research areas, such as cancer biology, mechanism of immune response, gene therapy, etc. Funds should be distributed among multiple priority research programs avoiding political considerations and directives which can easily lead to unjustified skewed funding of science....

Posted 05/08/2009 by Director Emeritus, American Type Culture Collection

Dr. Meilaender's points are well made and the issue of deliberate creating of embryos only for subsequent dissection needs more public debate and thoughtful deliberation. The ends, no matter how worthy, do not necessarily justify the means.

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