The Stem Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
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.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!"
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.
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 biology
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?
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.
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| Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters