- BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY
Mapping Stem Cell Policy: The Big Picture
As someone who has been following – and, literally, mapping – world stem cell policy for six years, I was struck by the Bioethics Forum posting by several members of the President’s Council on Bioethics on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. They argue that President Obama mischaracterized President Bush’s policy, that alternatives to research that involves destroying embryos now exist, and that Obama’s policy would allow federal funding for embryos to be created for research purposes through in vitro fertilization or cloning.
The President’s Council has done outstanding scholarly work. Bioethics commissions provide guidance to legislators as they debate and deliberate and make law in the brave new world of biotechnology. As a result, in part, of this guidance, by 2007 34 countries representing some 3.5 billion people – more than half the earth’s population – had policies that permitted public funds to be spent for stem cell research using embryos donated by fertility clinics with consent of the donors. The United States was not among them. Today it is on its way.
Back in 2003, as shown in the map below, countries in brown had flexible policies that permitted stem cell research on human embryos donated from fertility clinics, with the consent of the donors, and countries in yellow either had no policies or restrictive policies, meaning the research was prohibited, not explicitly permitted with existing stem cell lines, or permitted only with existing lines.
International Stem Cell Policies in 2003
Over the next six years, country after country established policies for dealing with an emerging science that carried with it profound ethical dilemmas. Today the map has changed dramatically.
Countries in light brown in the map below have flexible policies. Countries in dark brown also permit research on stem cell lines derived by using other techniques, such as nuclear transfer or research cloning. Countries in gray have restrictive policies. Countries in yellow have yet to establish a stem cell research policy.
International Stem Cell Policies in 2009
Scholars and legal experts representing specific countries at the Library of Congress Law Library have verified the accuracy of my maps. The consensus view of countries that have deliberated and established policy is that research on stem cell lines derived from human embryos donated by fertility clinics with consent of the donors is legal and can be funded with public money. No country that I am aware of has established such a policy and subsequently backed away from it. Several countries have liberalized their policy to include other stem cell derivation techniques, such as nuclear transfer or research cloning. Some permit embryos to be created in vitro solely for the purpose of research. All countries that have established a research policy in the field have banned human reproductive cloning. That is, all except the U.S.
What does this work signify and how does it relate to the public debate in the U.S.? To this layman, one of the most baffling things about the debate here and the reaction to President Obama’s executive order is the near total inability of some leading critics to see the “big picture” that the maps help to illustrate. That was true of Robert George and Eric Cohen writing in the Wall Street Journal, Yuval Levin writing in Newsweek, and William Saletan writing in Slate, and the President’s Council members writing in Bioethics Forum. The framing in each case was that of the now familiar domestic political dispute arising out of ethical differences. Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves on.
As I see it, the key in both research and policy is flexibility. My stem cell policy map employs the term “flexible” to describe a moderate position that allows research (and funding) on stem cell lines derived from donated embryos that would otherwise be discarded. That is likely to be the policy of the Obama administration.
Flexibility was also what Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould had in mind when he wrote a commentary for the New York Times shortly before President Bush announced his federal policy for embryonic stem cell research in August 2001.
“Speaking personally, I do not grant the status of a human life to a clump of cells in a dish, produced by fertilization in vitro and explicitly destined for discard by the free decision of the man and woman who contributed the components,” Gould wrote in “What Only the Embryo Knows” in which he also described how embryonic stem cell flexibility is lost as development proceeds. “But I also have no desire to offend the sensibilities of those who disagree. Thus, if I could derive cells of similar flexibility in a different way, I would gladly do so, even at considerable extra time and expense.”
If we have not arrived at that point yet, we are surely closing in, much to the relief of legislators around the world.
William Hoffman is founder of the Minnesota Biomedical and Bioscience Network (MBBNet) and coauthor of The Stem Cell Dilemma: Beacons of Hope or Harbingers of Doom?