May 27, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Chip Away at Ethics

When a human being is a commodity, atrocities follow. The time to stop it is before acceleration down the slippery slope.

Not every “interesting” question is an ethical question. Not every experiment that produces new knowledge is right to perform. For instance, “gain-of-function” research to see if viruses can be made more transmissible to humans is under intense scrutiny right now, as it may have led to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. A worldview that rejects absolutes is the most at risk of cutting corners that lead to crimes against humanity.

Human Stem Cell Research Guidelines Updated (The Scientist). For years, western governments (particularly the US and UK) have abided by a 14-day limit on research on human embryos. 14 days is when gastrulation starts. Many in the pro-life community consider any experimentation on embryos to be unethical, because a fertilized ovum has all the individual characteristics of a unique human being. Nevertheless, that compromise has prevented worse ambitions of some scientists, such as human cloning. Now, that roadblock is being lifted by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

In response to the technological advances of recent years, the International Society for Stem Cell Research today (May 26) released an updated version of its guidelines for basic and clinical research involving human stem cells and embryos. The ISSCR’s changes include recommendations for using human embryo models, lab-derived gametes, and human-animal chimeras as well as an end to the widely accepted two-week maximum for growing human embryos in culture.

Who are the members of the ISSCR, and why do they think they can make monumental decisions like this?

The ISSCR, founded in 2002, produced its original standards for human embryonic stem cell research in 2006, followed closely in 2008 with guidelines for the use of such cells in clinical settings. In 2016, these two documents were combined and updated to form the ISSCR’s Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation. And now, five years on, the document has been updated again—the result of two years of work and deliberation by an international team of close to 50 scientists, bioethicists, and policy experts, with peer review by a separate team of independent researchers and ethicists from around the world, explains ISSCR president Christine Mummery of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

And yet most of these same people have a vested interest in helping research go forward on human embryos. Why didn’t it include any pro-life bioethicists, like Wesley J. Smith? Who watches the watchers?

Pressure has been mounting on the ISSCR to liberalize their guidelines because scientists have been getting away with other risky and questionable techniques:

Since the 2016 guide, stem cell researchers have made a number of significant technical advances. It is now possible, for example, to grow in culture embryonic stem cell–derived models of human embryos as well as chimeric human-monkey embryos. Aside from these breakthroughs, the last five years have seen improvements in organoid culture, germ cell culture and transplantation, gene editing, and other areas for which updates to the ISSCR guidelines were needed, says bioethicist Insoo Hyun of Harvard Medical School and Case Western Reserve University who is a member of the ISSCR guidelines update steering committee.

Notably, the ISSCR is not regulating the development of brain organoids. But the reasons appear subjective and philosophically dubious. One says that brain organoids in a lab dish are “not sophisticated enough at this stage, we think… They’re too small, too rudimentary, and they’re not hooked up to any external stimuli.” And so the ISSCR decided that arm of research requires no oversight. No objective criteria are mentioned, however, for setting a line that might be crossed some day when a brain organoid is sophisticated enough.

Overlooking Basic Concerns

Only Josephine Johnston from the Hastings Center expresses concerns in the article about the guideline changes. She was not involved with the guidelines but sees the slippery slope ahead.

Human embryonic stem cell research “sits at the intersection of several areas where the stakes are fairly high in terms of public trust,” says bioethicist Josephine Johnston of the Hastings Center who was not involved with crafting the new guidelines. “It’s human material, it’s embryos, it’s sometimes fetal cells . . . and they also use animals.”

She feels the 14-day limit has, till now, increased public trust that science is not being careless. The rule “said to policy makers and the public, ‘We are not without restrictions. We have lines that we will not cross.’” Now, however, no time limit has been specified by the ISSCR.

Rather than removing the limit, she says, it may have been better to set a new one—either a longer time limit, or a biological one. Assuming that going beyond 14 days is scientifically justified, she says, keeping some sort of limit would be a signal of accountability, restraint, and respect for this early form of human life.

The UK has a 14-day limit written into law. Surprisingly, the US does not. Heretofore only the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has abided by the 14-day rule of the ISSCR for projects it funds. Will they liberate American scientists now to tinker with human embryos as long as they wish to? Johnston warns, “I predict that we will see US institutions permitting research beyond fourteen days now, because they will have ISSCR behind them.

Update 5/27/2021: World Magazine hints that since China ignores the restrictions, the west might fear being left behind. “The guidelines still forbid human cloning, transferring human embryos into animal uterus, creating human-animal chimeras, and genetic editing that could pass on to future generations,” writes Rachel Aldrich. “But scientists in China have already broken some of those limits. And Robin Lovell-Badge, chair of the group, said that last restriction could be up for debate in the future.”

It was noteworthy that The Scientist, a website within the scientific community, ended with the concerns of Johnston. Where were other voices inside the ISSCR with concerns? What happened to make them all acquiesce to the desires of mad scientists who see embryos as toys to play with in the lab?

Unethical scientists can always think of excuses for what they are doing: understanding aging or health conditions, curing cancer, or whatever. But as old preacher Bob Jones Sr said, it is never right to do wrong in order to have a chance to do right. Those kinds of excuses were used by Mengele. China is thinking, ‘Prisoners are going to die anyway; we might as well experiment on them.’ Western scientists think, ‘Women are going to have abortions; we might as well use the tissue for research.’ The ISSCRF appears to be reasoning, ‘The technology is here to watch embryos gastrulate; why not allow it?’

Using such pragmatic excuses, scientists who deny human exceptionalism can speed right past the flashing red lights.



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