During the great embryonic stem cell research debate, promoters of an unlimited license to experiment promised that using nascent human life as research subjects would be limited to the first 14 days.
Until then, we were told, human embryos aren’t really human, just a “ball of cells”–pure junk biology. Well, if one wants to become truly reductionist, so are all of us.
During that era, I and others warned that the “14-day rule,” as it is called, was a ruse, a sop to the great unwashed who believe all human life matters morally, including developing embryos.
The strategy, we warned, is to agree to outlaw now what can’t be done today, to allow an open license to do what can.
Then, when that research leads to the ability to do what previously couldn’t be done, the ruse prohibitions will be dismantled and a farther line drawn to accommodate what now can. In other words, the bright ethical lines were always meant to fade.
Scientists are on the verge now of being able to keep embryos alive longer than 14 days outside the uterus, and so the campaign has begun to dismantle the 14-day rule. And so, what was once sold as an important moral boundary, is now denigrated as a mere way station from which regulations can “evolve.” From the Nature story:
Some might conclude from such developments that policymakers redefine boundaries expediently when the limits become inconvenient for science. If restrictions such as the 14-day rule are viewed as moral truths, such cynicism would be warranted.
But when they are understood to be tools designed to strike a balance between enabling research and maintaining public trust, it becomes clear that, as circumstances and attitudes evolve, limits can be legitimately recalibrated.
Time to bring out the tried and true policy eraser.
Any formal changes to this rule should occur through similar processes of consensus-building involving experts, policymakers, patients and concerned citizens.
Ideally, discussion should begin at an international level given the global nature of this research — although taking local cultural and religious differences into account properly would also require national-level debates.
A complication is that in many countries, a revision to the 14-day rule would involve a legislative change. Yet the kind of international discourse that we envision could facilitate and inform local decisions to amend law or research policy.
In other words, time to round up the usual suspects to rubber stamp the changes scientists want, which appears to be what the have already done.
Next week, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) will release its revised guidelines for stem-cell research. These guidelines are the result of a multinational, interdisciplinary task force (which included one of us, I.H.) with input from stakeholders around the world.
One of the goals of these guidelines is to provide a framework for those concerned about how research oversight should proceed in light of new forms of embryo research.
For those who think that scientific utility justifies all, remember this process of intentional policy creep will likely lead to again experimenting on live fetuses–a concept sometimes called fetal farming.
You think not? Experiments were conducted on living fetuses in the late 60s and early 70s, but ceased based on public uproar that you just don’t do that to human beings, (led, ironically, by Ted Kennedy).
Would there be such an uproar today? I doubt it.
So here’s the profoundly cynical game that is afoot: The ethical lines that “the scientists” accept are drawn in pencil so they can be erased when the time comes. In the end, at least in this area of research, the true goal is anything goes.