I RECENTLY participated in a debate at the Harvard Medical School on the ethics of stem cell cloning. A co-panelist was Dr. Michael West, a Massachusetts biotech executive. His announcement a week earlier of a supposed breakthrough in human cloning nearly stampeded the Senate into banning cloning even for therapeutic purposes.
There are indeed many ethical issues here, but the religious right has so thoroughly hijacked the conversation that the knotty scientific and ethical questions get sidetracked. On the issue of stem cell research, the gap between the scientific and religious cultures has never been wider.
West tried to reassure several right-to-lifers in the Harvard audience by respectfully engaging them on their own terms. He explained that the early embryonic cells that his laboratory tries to turn into specialized tissue for therapeutic purposes hadn't even ''individuated'' yet. He even tried recourse to scripture. But you can't debate facts, much less scripture, with someone whose knowledge is absolute. One clergyman in the audience faulted the scientists at the table for a lack of humility and for relying on ''a liturgy'' that leaves out theological knowledge. A liturgy! Liturgy is a religious concept, not a scientific one. It's the religious absolutists, whether in Cambridge or Kabul, who could learn humility from scientists.
The right-to-life lobby knows as God's revealed truth that human life begins at conception. By contrast, scientists begin with the premise that all hypotheses are subject to empirical testing and experimental falsification.
Skepticism (and humility) form the essence of the scientific method. Revealed religious truth, on the other hand, may be subject to theological disputation but rarely to empirical falsification (except perhaps when a relic proves bogus or a miracle fraudulent). The potential of stem cell research to enhance human life is extraordinary. Within a few years, unless the religious right manages to stop it, specialized cells developed from either embryonic or adult cells will be used therapeutically to treat everything from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, spinal injuries, heriditary impairments, and even the regeneration of diseased organs. What could be more ''prolife''?
At the same time, there are indeed myriad ethical questions raised by the effort to develop therapeutic applications of stem cell cloning. And none of them is theological issue of when life begins.
Among the real and knotty ethical questions are these: Should human embryos be created expressly to be used for stem cell extraction? (At present, laboratories generally use surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization efforts.)
Should women be paid to donate eggs or fertilized embryos to stem cell labs? Or should sale of embryos be banned just as most organ sales are banned in the United States?
Should expensive therapies derived from stem cell research be covered universally by health insurance? Should some applications be considered therapeutic and others cosmetic? Or should all of these therapies be just for the rich?
Should a whole human being ever be cloned? What about the hard cases - an infertile couple suffering the death of a 2-year-old? What about gay men who desire children?
How much of the basic science should be patented and considered proprietary commercial knowledge, and how much should be publicly funded and kept in the public domain? Skeptics of West's breakthrough announcement viewed it as aimed more at Wall Street analysts than at the scientific community.
President Bush took a stab at setting ethical guidelines last August. This was the last major controversy before Sept. 11 blew everything else off the front pages.
Bush's guidelines make no sense whatever except when understood as an attempt to accommodate right-to-lifers without looking totally antiscience. He decreed that stem cell colonies produced before Aug. 9, 2001, could continue to receive federal funding for research purposes but no federal money could go to develop new stem cells from embryos. Private money, oddly, could continue to finance such work.
The only conceivable logic of this position is that previously ''murdered'' embryos cannot be brought back to life and might as well be used therapeutically but that policy should discourage future ''murders.'' Yet the president's decision allows private entrepreneurs to make the major scientific and ethical decisions, which leads to inconsistent public policy and fragments the science. In other words, administration policy is a bizarre twin sop to right-to-lifers and biotech entrepreneurs.
The life-enhancing promise of stem cell research is just too potent and the ethical questions too tricky to leave the issue in the hands either of private entrepreneurs or religious fundamentalists, much less both.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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