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The Stem Cell Debate: Ethical Questions

The story for the year 1997 was the cloning controversy, the public debate over cloning human beings. Ian Wilmut, the laboratory midwife to the world famous sheep, Dolly, never intended to clone a human being. He still opposes the idea. Almost everyone opposes the idea."The Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics have made it clear that they regard the idea [of human reproductive cloning] as ethically unacceptable." Ian Wilmut and Donald Bruce, "Dolly Mixture,"...Yet, the cultural explosion ignited by this new scientific achievement continues to spread fallout. The prospect of gaining too much control--too much choice--over our own evolutionary future elicits anxiety, fear, suspicion. Genetic science seems to be igniting fires previously smoldering in our primordial sensibilities. Science is secular. And when secular science enters our DNA we fear it is entering a realm of the sacred. We fear a Promethean blunder. We fear that our own human hubris will violate something sacred in our nature; and we fear that nature will retaliate with disaster. To protect ourselves from a possible Promethean blunder by science, we are tempted to stop further research with the commandment: "thou shalt not play God!"

Then, during 1999, we opened the first few pages on chapter two of the cloning controversy story. I will refer to this chapter as "the stem cell debate." The debate has only begun. What is not yet clear is just what needs to be debated. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. What is clear is that the fallout from the cloning explosion is still lighting fires here and there. Whether or not the public will add stem cells to the fuel to make those fires burn hotter remains to be seen.

Stem cells have become front page news in Australia, as well as in the United States and other countries. On February 4, 1999, the Australian National Academy of Science issued a position statement. Note the structure of Recommendation 1.

Council considers that reproductive cloning to produce human fetuses is unethical and unsafe and should be prohibited....However, human cells derived from cloning techniques, from ES cell lines, or from primordial germ cells should not be precluded from use in approved research activities in cellular and developmental biologyOn Human Cloning, A Position Statement, 4 February 1999, Australian Academy of Science, GPO Box 783, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

Here two things are put together. First, disapproval of reproductive cloning for the purposes of making children. Second, approval of research on human embryonic stem cells, approval even in the face of ethical squeamishness regarding embryo research. If this Australian statement is a barometer, we need to ask: what is the cultural weather forecast? What might be coming?

In what follows it will be my task to report on the fast-moving frontier of stem cell research within the field of genetics. I will try to identify the ethical questions that are relevant to what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic new chapters in medical history, a chapter just beginning and expected to continue over the next decade or longer. Then I will try to formulate questions regarding theological anthropology, agenda questions raised by science that need to be addressed by systematic theologians and public policy makers. I will ask more questions than I am ready to answer. Yet, I believe that such work invested in trying to formulate the relevant question (die Fragestellung) takes us more than just halfway toward a helpful answer.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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