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

Moral Restrictions on Scientific Research Are Imperative

On March 9, President Obama removed restrictions on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines derived by means that destroy human embryos. In his remarks on that occasion, the president depicted his action as repudiating “a false choice between sound science and moral values.”

In those remarks, however, the president actually said little that examined the ethical issues. Indeed, as others have noted, the speech given by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on August 9, 2001, explored in much greater detail the competing moral goods at stake in decisions about embryonic stem cell research.

The aim of the Bush administration’s policy was not to shackle scientific research, but to find a way to fund some research while also recognizing the serious moral problems the research raised. That, in fact, is precisely how the President’s Council on Bioethics formulated the question in a report released in 2004: “How can embryonic stem cell research, conducted in accordance with basic research ethics, be maximally aided within the bounds of the principle that nascent human life should not be destroyed for research?”

We ought to be astonished by the frequency with which those who know better pursue their political purposes by talking as if the very thought of placing moral restrictions on scientific research were unacceptable. Attention to the ethical principles that ought to guide and limit research has been constant since the end of World War II. Different kinds of research have been limited, and sometimes prohibited, not in order to suppress science, but in order to free it as a genuinely human and moral activity.

Indeed, resisting the idea that there is, as Daniel Callahan has put it, a “research imperative” has been one of the central themes of bioethics in this country from its earliest years. Whether one agrees or not with the stem cell funding policy that had been in place for more than seven years, clarity and honesty require that we acknowledge its intent: to seek a way for science to proceed, but to proceed within limits and without violating the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens. Moreover, this policy had begun to bear fruit.

Gilbert Meilaender, Ph.D.

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.

Gilbert Meilaender, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University and has been a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics since 2002.

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