October 19, 2005

MercuryNews.com | 10/19/2005 | Don't let critics stifle stem-cell studies

Art Caplan and David Magnus write in the Mercury News today on the stupid "alternatives to embryonic stem cell research" articles in Nature:
It is often said that science is racing ahead of ethics. Whether that is true or not, it makes no sense to distort science to meet a perceived ethical problem. That is what has just happened with the publication of two articles appeared in the prestigious journal Nature, touting ``alternative'' approaches to embryonic stem-cell research.

The articles suggest that it is important to find ``alternatives'' to the existing methods for creating embryonic stem-cell research. But neither paper explains why existing methods -- using leftover embryos from infertility clinics or cloning them -- are immoral. Instead, the scientists involved in the new papers suggest that there may be ways to disable an embryo or to remove a cell from an embryo at a very early stage of development and create embryonic stem cells that way.

The driving force behind these papers is not science. It is, rather, to use some rather unimpressive technical tricks to meet the objections of some critics of embryonic stem-cell research. In a word, it is scientific pandering. And it is wrong.

Of course it makes sense to experiment and figure out the best ways to make embryonic stem cells. But few in the scientific community think that either of the techniques proposed will do that.

Does it make sense to fiddle with embryos to satisfy critics? Hardly. People are kidding themselves if they think opponents of embryonic stem-cell research will not find major moral problems with any technique that involves embryo disabling or embryo manipulation using in-vitro fertilization where some embryos are inevitably destroyed.

Moreover, holding up important research to pursue possible alternatives because there are critics of the morality of existing techniques is a terrible idea. The attention showered upon these articles in the media and by some politicians who oppose embryonic stem-cell research is a very dangerous development for anyone who is interested in doing embryonic stem-cell research or benefiting from it.

Regardless of what stem-cell opponents claim, a reasonable person might think that making it extremely unlikely that an entity has the capacity to develop is sufficient for research to morally proceed. However, it should be pointed out that cloning using somatic cell nuclear transfer of the sort already done in South Korea already meets that standard. There is no evidence yet that primate cloning is possible and all available knowledge suggests that embryos produced by cloning cannot reliably develop into fully functioning human beings. In other words, we have had the technology and techniques we need already. These so-called breakthroughs add nothing of much use, from either a scientific or an ethical point of view.

Must science proceed only if everyone in the nation agrees that the research is worth doing? If so, no science will ever be conducted. We would never do research in evolutionary biology since there are creationists who oppose it. We could not do research on cancer, mental illnesses or animals, since each of these has its critics. The idea that scientists should abandon embryonic stem-cell research while looking for alternatives is bad public policy.

The vast majority of the public believes that embryonic stem-cell research should be conducted, that embryos outside the body that will not develop on their own and that are routinely destroyed at infertility clinics do not have the same moral status as fetuses or people. A minority vehemently disagrees. We should not be trying to appease a minority with scientific flimflammery while delaying promising research that one day may lead to treatments that improve millions of lives.

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