On March 9, President Obama removed restrictions on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines derived by means that destroy human embryos. Although members of the President’s Council on Bioethics have been divided on this question and some of our colleagues disagree with us, we think it may be useful and clarifying to set the president’s action in three ways into the context of work the council has done over the past seven years.
- At the outset of his remarks, the president characterized his action as “lift[ing] the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.” That language does not accurately characterize the federal funding policy that has been in place during the entire tenure of this council. The policy announced by President Bush on August 9, 2001, did not ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research; rather, for the first time, it provided and endorsed such funding (as long as the stem cell lines had been derived prior to that date).
The aim of this policy was not to shackle scientific research but to find a way to reconcile the need for research with the moral concerns people have. That is precisely how the council formulated the question in Monitoring Stem Cell Research: “How can embryonic stem cell research, conducted in accordance with basic research ethics, be maximally aided within the bounds of the principle that nascent human life should not be destroyed for research?”
Attention to the ethical principles that ought to guide and limit scientific research has been constant since the end of World War II. Different kinds of research have been limited, and sometimes prohibited, not in order to suppress science but in order to free it as a genuinely human and moral activity. Whether one agrees or not with the policy that had been in place for more than seven years, clarity and honesty require that we acknowledge its intent: to seek a way for science to proceed without violating the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens.
- In many respects, that policy of seeking a way forward that would not violate widespread moral convictions had in fact succeeded--or, at least, seemed well on the way to achieving its aim. In 2005 this council published a white paper titled Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells. At its outset, we stated our commitment to two goals: “advancing biomedical science and upholding ethical norms.” We examined briefly four methods that had been proposed for procuring embryonic-like stem cells without destroying human embryos. We were not at that point in a position to endorse without hesitation any of them, but we concluded that we were “pleased to endorse these proposals as worthy of further public discussion, and . . . pleased to encourage their scientific exploration.”
Since the publication of that white paper, researchers have made progress on all of these methods – most strikingly in reprogramming somatic cells in order to restore them to a pluripotent condition. In the last two years, several different groups of scientists have succeeded in producing what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. Because producing them does not require the destruction of embryos, they do not raise what many regard as a grave moral difficulty. Because producing them does not require human ova, and because they are patient-specific stem cells that are less likely to be rejected by their recipients, they also have distinct scientific advantages. Indeed, on the day following President Obama’s announcement, an analysis in the New York Times noted that the embryonic stem cell research the president had touted “has been somewhat eclipsed by new advances.”
It is also worth noting here the position adopted by our predecessor body, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which did important work during the Clinton administration. NBAC approved stem cell research using (and, of course, destroying) embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization treatments. At the same time, however, NBAC stated that such embryo-destructive research is justifiable “only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.” Such alternatives are now available, and research on them is advancing.
With respect to the progress that had been made in reconciling the needs of research and the moral concerns of many Americans, we can only judge, therefore, that the president’s action has taken a step backward, and we regret that.
- In his remarks on March 9, President Obama promised to “ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” While this may seem comforting, it stands in need of clarification.
The president’s announced policy would permit federal funding of research not only on stem cell lines derived from “spare” IVF embryos but also on lines derived from created and/or cloned embryos. In the latter two cases, we would be producing embryos simply in order to use them for our purposes.
What researchers most desire, in fact, are not spare IVF embryos but cloned embryos, produced in order to study disease models. The funding decision announced by the president on March 9 will encourage such cloning. Nor should we be reassured that, at the same time, the president opposed “the use of cloning for human reproduction.” If cloned embryos are produced, they may be implanted and gestated. To prevent that, it will be necessary, as we noted in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, “to prohibit, by law, the implantation of cloned embryos for the purpose of producing children. To do so, however, the government would find itself in the unsavory position of designating a class of embryos that it would be a felony not to destroy.” We cannot believe that this would advance our society’s commitment to equal human dignity.
In fidelity to the work the council has done over the past seven years, therefore, we think it essential to clarify what is at stake in the newly announced policy.
Personal Statement by Edmund D. Pellegrino
As an individual council member, speaking for myself and not the President’s Council on Bioethics, I support the substance of the objections of some council members to recent relaxation of existing policies regarding human embryonic stem cell research. Ethically, I cannot support any policy permitting deliberate production and/or destruction of a human fetus or embryo for any purpose, scientific or therapeutic.
– Edmund D. Pellegrino
Posted by Greg Kaebnick at 03/25/2009 02:34:02 PM