Another ethical hot potato that one of Clinton’s bioethics commissions weighed in on was whether to embrace research based on the then-new application of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The panel’s final report included support for research involving the derivation and use of human embryonic germ cells from cadaveric fetal tissue derived from aborted fetuses and research involving the derivation and use of hESCs from embryos remaining after infertility treatments under regulations that include public oversight and review.
The report recommended against the purchase or sale of embryos and cadaveric fetal tissue, against funding research involving hESCs from embryos made solely for research purposes using IVF or cloning, and for creation of a federal oversight board to in part establish a database of cell lines and develop protocols for their use in research.
“When it came to human embryonic stem cell research, the issue just tapped into all of the pro-life, pro-choice tensions,” Dr. Murray said. “It brought broad embryo politics to the fore. There was no way anybody could have satisfied all parties on a report on human embryonic stem cell research.”
On many issues, he recalled, the commission reached consensus only after heated discussion: “We argued about everything. We argued about justice in international research. We argued about how to think about people’s relationships to biological materials they surrendered in the course of research or medical treatment. We had lots of spirited conversations.”
Not so on issues related to abortion, where both sides proved unwilling to compromise deeply held views. Yet the panel was not supposed to act in an obviously partisan manner. While it included members with pro-life sympathies, Dr. Murray said, “it certainly had no ideological spokespersons for the right-to-life point of view.”
That’s no surprise given that Clinton was a Democrat. Also not surprising: when Republican successor George W. Bush established his own panels on bioethics, they tilted toward more conservative and pro-life positions.
A 2005 white paper from Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics discussed four ethically uncontroversial ways to advance hESC research without destroying embryos: Extracting cells through four- to eight-cell embryos already dead; nonharmful biopsy of living embryos; artificially created nonembryonic cellular systems capable of some cell division and growth yet engineered to lack the essential elements of embryogenesis; or dedifferentiation of somatic cells back to pluripotency.
The paper highlighted the divide between the Bush administration, which opposed hESC research because they believed that embryo destruction was morally and ethically wrong, and scientists who favored the research because they believed hESCs had the potential to cure disease.
“With the stem cell debate, cloning, and so forth, the Bush council was very much part of the culture wars. It was not entirely their fault. You have to say they were really at the cutting edge of that cultural political debate,” said Dr. Moreno. “All presidents are entitled to choose their own advisors. I didn’t agree with much of what the Bush council did. But that was President Bush’s advisors, and he had the right to appoint who he wanted.”
Over the past nearly four decades of presidential science and bioethics commissions, Dr. Moreno said, the panels have largely been able to function with some degree of removal from politics. The chairs and members of those panels usually serve without pay and are usually people with backgrounds in science, ethics, or academia rather than in politics.
“I can’t deny that presidents get to choose who they want to be on these commissions,” Dr. Moreno acknowledged. “But after that, the commissions have pretty much worked independently. Frankly, [members] could quit if they didn’t like what was going on, if they felt pressured by the White House.”