October 19, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cell Breakthroughs: No More Ethical Concerns?

Several science news sites have been reporting two new techniques for creating embryonic stem cells that do not involve the creation of viable embryos (see, for instance, New Scientist, Science Now, and Nature news, 437, 1065 (20 October 2005) | doi: 10.1038/4371065a).
    There is no consensus yet, however, whether these methods overcome all the ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research.  The ethical impact of one of the methods, alternate nuclear transfer (ANT), hinges on the definition of when life begins.  Every bit helps, reported Nature, but –

It remains to be seen if either method can do anything to resolve the political impasse over human embryonic stem-cell research….
The ethical appeal of the [ANT] approach has yet to be tested.  If proponents such as Hurlbut are sufficiently numerous and influential, it could help to tip the balance towards a more benign regulatory and funding environment for human embryonic stem-cell research.
  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

In the same issue of Nature (437, 1076-1077 (20 October 2005) | doi: 10.1038/4371072b), Carina Dennis and Erika Check made it clear where the ethical pressure was coming from: “Religious and ethical concerns are forcing researchers using human embryonic stem cells to seek ways to sidestep these issues.”  The question dogging researchers is what is the definition of an embryo, if it is not viable and could not be implanted.  Some critics are not convinced; one says the ANT product is indistinguishable from a natural embryo; another said, “You do an engineering step to essentially destroy the embryo so that you can then use it.”
    Nature’s editorial writers make no bones about their desire to accelerate stem-cell research, and view these new techniques with cautious optimism – the caution deriving from what ethicists will think.  Other references in the journal encourage Germany to get rid of its ban on stem-cell research, and the Bush administration to loosen restrictions.  And the prior week, Erika Check had reported in Nature about how “US progressives fight for a voice in bioethics.”  She pointed to one incident that illustrates the difference between progressives and conservatives: “[Arthur] Caplan [ethicist, U of Pennsylvania] and others were outraged when Republican leaders fought to keep Schiavo on life support against her husband’s wishes.  ‘Nothing could make clearer the difference between progressive and conservative bioethics,’ says Caplan.”  Erika Check reported on steps progressives are taking to organize and combat the influence of conservative bioethicists.

These articles illustrate once again that mad scientists would go berserk with what they could do, if it were not for people with an ethical conscience, often derived from religion, putting the brakes on their reckless (and funding-motivated) enthusiasm.  It would be good to read again some of the moral issues and potential horrors of unregulated genetic engineering we listed in our 08/24/2003 commentary (see bullet item “Right to Life lobby”).  Keep the pressure on.  We would have no qualms over stem cell research that passes the most rigorous tests of informed ethicists, particularly those who understand Christian principles of compassion, like not grinding up some lives to help others.  But be careful.  Darwinism has bequeathed to us an unprincipled lot of opportunists and glory-seekers.  Their appeals couched in terms of compassion leave ample room for skepticism, when the mouth vocalizing altruistic rhetoric is accompanied with dollar signs in the eyes.

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