Science & Tech

Ethics in Miniature


During earlier rounds of the debate over research on human embryos — back in the days of the George W. Bush administration, when the issue was a major political controversy — the advocates of allowing and federally funding that research explained that carefully drawn ethical limits would be observed. Research would not be permitted after the embryos had developed to the 14-day mark.

The opponents, mostly pro-lifers, said that these advocates were at best fooling themselves. There was no principled difference between killing a human embryo at 14 days and killing one at 15 days, and the attempted distinction would collapse the moment any pressure were put on it.

That moment is now upon us. Researchers are now capable of going past 14 days, they believe that it would offer some benefits to do so, and so they want to get rid of the line before they actually run up against it. A campaign to relax the rules has been under way for a few years now, and the International Society for Stem Cell Research — one of those rarefied lobbying groups that has the good fortune not to get described as such — has just endorsed it. To the ISSCR’s limited credit, it is not going through the charade of proposing a new fake time limit to replace 14 days. It just wants to scrap the limit altogether while suggesting a case-by-case review of research.

It would also give a green light to research on embryos that are partly human and partly nonhuman animals. The rationale is that these chimeras would be sufficiently human to shed light on human biology and to offer potential therapeutic applications for humans — perhaps even providing organs for transplantation — without being so human that the experiments would have to be tightly constrained. For people of a morally sound sensibility, to describe this idea should be enough to cause its instant rejection.

The Senate has, however, voted down an amendment to bar federal funding for research on such chimeras, with all the Democrats voting against and all the Republicans in favor. Media coverage of the issue has been light, and has sometimes treated the issue as a bizarre invention of social conservatives. A more extended debate is worth pushing for, as is legislation that entirely bans the creation of chimeras with partly human brains or reproductive systems rather than merely denying taxpayer funds to research on them.

The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, should reject the ISSCR’s invitation for it to shred existing ethical limitations. Their defect is not that they are too tight. Ideally we would follow the policies of such countries as Germany and Turkey, more advanced than we are in this respect, which ban the destruction of human embryos for research purposes altogether. The organization’s proposal to relax the rules the moment they could start to have any effect is a good reason to think that industry self-regulation is radically insufficient when it comes to matters of basic human rights.


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