The scientific rule of thumb is to keep an open mind. Let’s practice doing that, in the age of ESC. That’s embryonic stem cells. These are very much in the news. There are enterprises begun, others contemplated; there are state laws saying you cannot do this; there is the National Academy of Sciences which has promulgated a set of recommendations for approved practices in dealing with ESCs; but there is also the confusion generated by President Bush’s decree, refusing federal funding for research on ESCs except on such cell lines as the government had on hand–so to speak, moribund ESCs, though all ESCs are moribund. Last week the Starr Foundation committed $50 million to three research institutions (Cornell, Rockefeller, and Sloan-Kettering) to finance ESC research work and provide facilities for scientists who might otherwise transfer their time and talents elsewhere. . . . What a mess.
To get back to the basic question: What is it we are dancing around, in such unformulated confusion?
One hears it said that we do not want to engage in the kind of work Hitler engaged in.
If all ideas are open, we should ask: Why not? It isn’t genocide that is being contemplated by some modern scientists. Genocide is out. But just because Hitler encouraged a scientific enterprise doesn’t automatically condemn that enterprise, does it? Men working under Hitler did most of the creative work toward developing a jet engine, and we have lots of them, without any sense of moral forfeit.
So Hitler was interested in developing a more perfect human being. What’s the matter with that? If his scientists–left alone–could collect all the right stem cells, discard the weaker, reinforce the stronger, stir it all in a great biological vat, and come up with healthier people, what’s the matter with that?
Well, to do that would require you to get rid of the weaker stem cells. Why not? The Supreme Court has ruled that the right to discard a fetus is constitutionally guaranteed. A fetus is much more advanced than the embryos currently being discussed (in the open). The guidelines issued by the National Academy of Sciences specify that no human embryo should be grown in a lab more than 14 days–”when the first primitive streak of a nervous system appears.” We learn that that has been the practice for in vitro fertilization, a line carefully drawn.
But one is driven, in the open laboratory of unhampered thought, to ask, again, Why? What is it that requires untethered free spirits, of the kind dreamed about in the idylls of Ayn Rand, to abide by existing biological models? Surely we don’t need to invoke Hitler as the generic patron of healthy human development?
Practically everybody says that we should not clone. Why not? What’s the matter with trying to produce another Marilyn Monroe, or another Vladimir Horowitz? Or, as we perfect the refinements of the trade, another Einstein? One runs the risk–we’d have to admit this–of cloning another St. Paul. But when he began to preach, we could inject into him some kind of serum designed to correct antediluvian thought.
Indeed we learn that South Korean scientists have gone a long way in ESC research, and just who is going to tell the South Koreans where they must stop? If Mr. Bush’s insight is correct–that ESC mustn’t take live embryos which, properly nurtured, could develop into human beings–scientists’ resources would be sharply limited, and stem-cell-line development brusquely interrupted. One of the guidelines being considered by the National Academy of Sciences would touch on the question of transplants. One formulation: “Experiments in which human ESCs are implanted in animals–to study the development and treatment of diseases–should be permitted but tightly regulated by review panels.” How tightly regulated? If a cure for cancer were espied around the corner, in what toilet do we stuff the regulation?
ESC research may or may not end cancer, but it will certainly revolutionize, or seek to do so, laws and conventions that set bioethical limits on medical explorations.