September 26, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Ethics Shmethics: Scientists Obsessed with Embryonic Stem Cells

With non-controversial adult stem cell research zooming along, like finding ways to prevent adult stem cells (ASC) from aging (PhysOrg), providing hope for leukemia patients (Science Daily) and giving mastectomy patients a chance for beauty once again (Science Daily), why are so many scientists adamant about keeping embryonic stem cell research on the public dole?
    The scientists who were in despair about Judge Lamberth’s ruling earlier this month against federal funding (see 09/03/2010) got their reprieve: an appeals court granted a temporary stay (PhysOrg).  But now, scientists are urging Congress to make a law protecting embryonic stem cell (ESC) research.  They have allies on Capitol Hill.  PhysOrg reported about Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin urged their fellow Senators to get busy and fight for the right of scientists to bleed taxpayer dollars for their pet projects.  “We’ve come too far to give up now,” Harkin said, pointing to the more than $500 million already spent on ESC research.  One scientist defended it with worries about prestige, worried that courts are “disrupting our research, they are dissuading scientists from entering the field and they are threatening American preeminence in the research” which has yet to produce a cure.  “Embryonic stem cells have the potential to be turned into different kinds of tissue that could be used to regenerate and repair tissue and treat a host of diseases,” the article said.
    The article then mentioned the dark side: “Opponents say the research is another form of abortion because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells.”  Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss), co-author of the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment that prohibited federal funding for projects that result in the death of human embryos, argued for using adult stem cells to avoid the “ethical challenges” of ESC.  That law has hampered ESC-eager researchers, because they can only “work with stem cells after private money is used to cull them from embryos.”  Inconvenient as that may be, why should taxpayer dollars be spent on anything that is ethically controversial?  Is there some constitutional right to ESC?     A feel for the emotional state of some ESC researchers can be seen in the Sept 16 issue of Nature.  It prominently featured a study that suggested some adult stem cells may have “troublesome memories” of their non-embryonic origin, presumably making them less useful than true pluripotent stem cells like ELS.  Nature News described scientists in near frantic terms as they strive to get Congress to keep the taxpayer funds flowing, protected from judicial decisions which, presumably, would be based on ethical concerns.  The article said nothing about ethics, only mentioning once “the controversial human cells” at stake in the political battle.
    Nature’s editors printed two letters in support of ESC funding and none opposed (see card stacking in the Baloney Detector).  Both letters could be described as “over the top” in their assertions that opposing ESC funding is an attack on science.  Jian Feng [State U of New York at Buffalo] called Lamberth’s decision “troublesome” and “akin to our earlier obsession with Earth’s central position in the Universe and its anthropocentric implications.”  Gordon Cash, apparently speaking as a private citizen, was even more adamant, essentially calling Judge Lamberth or anyone who agrees with him a religious nut.  He sarcastically said that the court’s decision was not a threat to the federal funding of science, then let loose with this: “No, allowing research agendas to be dictated by religious fundamentalists threatens the very enterprise of federally funded science itself.”  Similarly, New Scientist described scientists as “anxious” about the court action.  Jack Mosher at the University of Michigan harped on the opponents’ ideological beliefs, pretending to have none of his own: “It’s worrying that I could come into work one day and I might not be allowed to do my research because of someone’s ideological beliefs rather than the quality of the science.”  Would such reasoning have been influential at the Nuremberg trials?
    Some cooler heads are trying to assess the situation more dispassionately.  PhysOrg reported on an international team of scientists who just published an “in-depth and balanced view of the rapidly evolving field of stem cell research” including both adult and embryonic stem cells.  The article noted that “apart from the scientific and technical challenges, there are serious ethical concerns, including issues of privacy, consent and withdrawal of consent for the use of unfertilized eggs and embryos.”  This statement omitted the largest ethical concern of all: whether it is ethical to destroy human embryos in the first place.
    PhysOrg also reported about two stem cell researchers from the University of South Florida who would like to see created “an independent national ‘Stem Cell Research Ethics Consortium’ to provide better guidance on stem cell issues for regulatory agencies, law makers and policy makers.”  One of them, Dr. Paul Sanberg, confessed that “Two decades of cell-based research has been accompanied by poor management of public discussion regarding ethics.”  An ethics consortium, he thinks, would help “to sort out the ethical, legal and social issues” that might lead to better dialogue and public policy.  “Stem cell science has contributed to misperceptions within the public and the research communities, and those misperceptions have hindered the progress of scientific innovation,” he said.  “In some respects, the failure of the scientific community to effectively address controversy in stem cell research has helped create today’s heated, yet poorly informed, debate.”
    Is a committee the answer?  Whether “Bringing together all stakeholders – including the legal, scientific, religious and the public sectors” would “allow a much more educated and logical approach in handling the public disbursement of funds for stem cell research,” or whether such a pipe dream will ever come true, is it realistic?  Is the question just about how to handle the public disbursement of funds, or whether to at all, if the ethical issues are deemed serious enough?  And even if a consortium were formed, would it have the political clout to stand up to a scientific consensus willing and able to shout down any opponent as an ideologically-motivated religious fundamentalist?
    PhysOrg reported that the first human clinical trial of a spinal cord treatment with embryonic stem cells is open for enrollment.  The public will soon see if the hope of ES cures lives up to the hype.  But even if it succeeds, the controversy over the ethics of destroying human embryos will not go away.
    Science magazine (09/17/2010, pp. 1450-1451) provided a timeline of US policy on human embryonic stem cell (hESC) funding from the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (28 Jan 1996) to the present, naming prominent politicians and scientists arguing for and against it.

As participants with a conflict of interest, ESC researchers should recuse themselves from discussions about ethics and federal funding of embryo destruction.  This is a matter for philosophers and theologians.  Notice that everyone has a philosophy and a theology – even atheists.  But there are some specialists, notably ethicists, historians and theologians, who have the background and training to assess human nature and the ethics of scientific decisions.  Bioethics is a hugely important topic these days with many subcategories beyond just ESC research.
    No amount of scientific research on embryos can address the ethics of doing what they can do.  The hubris and shameless emotional ranting of the scientific community (as legitimated by the journals) is all the more reason to discount their testimony.  Scientists can tell us they can build a bomb or cure a disease; they cannot tell us what we should do.  Curing a disease can be an ethical atrocity if done the wrong way (see parody in the 09/03/2010 commentary).
    Even less should scientists order John Q. Public to reach into his pockets and give them what they want.  That’s why we have a representative government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Scientists, you are citizens, too.  Act like you have one vote, not a privileged, exalted, oligarchical position over the rest of humanity (03/12/2004).  You can state the facts as you see them, and make your case in the marketplace of ideas, but lay off the tantrums and accusations that anyone who disagrees with you is somehow a “religious fundamentalist” out to attack science itself.  In short, grow up.

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