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Monday, December 03, 2007

The stem-cell discovery: A resolution, or a new debate?

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, researchers have managed to reprogram human skin cells and make them "pluripotent."  The discovery of these "induced pluripotent state" (iPS) cells is, I gather, huge.  It has, my law-and-science colleage, O. Carter Snead, observed,  "solved one of the most vexed issues at the intersection of science, ethics and public policy."

“The nation was morally and politically divided on the proper role of the government in regulating human embryonic stem cell research,” Snead said.  “Now, researchers have developed the means to pursue their scientific goals in a manner that is both scientifically superior to prior approaches and ethically acceptable to all sides of what seemed to be an intractable debate about scientific freedom, the goal of alleviating suffering, and respect for human life. Their work is a model of ethical scientific research for a morally pluralistic society.”

In two recent posts, though -- one at Concurring Opinions and one at Balkinization -- Prof. Russell Korobkin seems not to agree.

Prof. Korobkin regards the iPS cell discovery not so much as the occasion for celebrating what appears to be the resolution of an otherwise "intractable debate", but instead -- at Balkinization -- for "giv[ing] new and careful scrutiny to the question of whether medical research that destroys 5-day old human embryos (also called blastocysts) is ethically problematic."  He continues:

. . .  I argue that there is nothing ethically problematic with using embryos for research. Early-stage embryos and people are different in the ways important to the determination of moral status. Embryos lack any neuronal development, so they can’t be conscious of their existence, experience their environment, feel pain, or imagine the future. They do have potential to become people, but only if the word potential is understood very broadly. Embryos in a Petri dish can’t become people without substantial human assistance, nor are they even likely to become people if they are placed in a womb (most embryos created either in vitro or through sexual intercourse do not survive). The broad view of potentiality that would justify a comparison of embryos and people would also suggest that we ascribe significant moral value to individual egg and sperm cells.

Is there any justification for the extremely common view that embryos lack the moral status of people but still deserve some level of “special respect.” If so, it is only because embryos have symbolic value. That is, we should treat embryos respectfully not because specific embryos are entitled to respectful treatment and we owe them a duty, but because not doing so seems disrespectful of people (all of whom started out as embryos). When we use embryos for important medical research, we do not disrespect people, even if other tools also have potential to lead to cures. Embryonic research should continue, full throttle, until another research path is proven to be superior on purely scientific grounds.

It will come as no surprise that these claims and their underlying premises regarding the "moral status" of embryos -- i.e., about what it is about people that gives them "moral status" -- have prompted some feisty exchanges in Balkinization's "comments" box.  In any event, it seems that, as Prof. Robert George has put it, at "the heart of the debate over federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research is the question whether human embryos are human beings."  For an elaboration of George's views -- and for, I expect, a detailed engagement with the arguments flagged by Prof. Korobkin (and developed, I gather, in his book) -- I look forward to George's forthcoming book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 3, 2007 at 06:48 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink

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