A group of very well respected scientists, philosophers and ethicists (all involved in bioethics and stem cell research) have joined together to discuss and draft what they call a “consensus” on stem cell research, both destructive embryonic stem cell research and non-destructive, ethical non-embryonic stem cell research. The document can be accessed at the Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins.
This a very low-key, dry document and on first glance appears very reasonable.
Here is the justification for the work and the first two points of consensus:
While we strive for consensus on a fundamental ethical framework for stem cell research, we acknowledge the reality of cultural diversity and moral disagreement about some elements of stem cell research. Inconsistent and conflicting laws prevent some scientists from engaging in this research and hinder global collaboration. Societies have the authority to regulate science, and scientists have a responsibility to obey the law. However, policy makers should refrain from interfering with the freedom of citizens unless good and sufficient justification can be produced for so doing. As scientists, philosophers, bioethicists, lawyers, clinicians, journal editors and regulators involved in this field, we have reached consensus that if humankind is to have the very best chance of realizing the benefits of stem cell research in an ethically acceptable manner, the following principles should govern the ethical and legal regulation and oversight of stem cell and related research and its clinical applications. This is by no means a comprehensive list of principles, but rather a declaration of those discussed and agreed upon by our group:
1. Stem cell research should seek to minimize harm, and any risk of harm should be commensurate with expected overall benefit. Scientists and clinicians should conduct research according to ethically acceptable norms. For example, research should be conducted so as to protect the well-being, liberty and rights of cell and tissue donors as well as research participants. Research participants and donors of human materials must provide valid informed consent, and conflicts of interest should be appropriately addressed.
2. The law carries great power to facilitate or restrict scientific exploration in the area of stem cell research. Law makers should be circumspect when regulating science. When enacted, laws or regulations governing science nationally and internationally ought to be flexible, so as to accommodate rapid scientific advance.
Since the philosophers are supposedly discussing adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, it is easy to focus on those human embryos which are necessarily destroyed in the research. We could devote much time to this subject. (As a matter of fact this blog is evidence that we do.) However,there are other problems within the document.
First, the people who wrote this article do admit to having a vested interest in continuing the research. That is not necessarily bad. However, the rest of the document contains errors of assumption.
For one thing, there is no discussion of possible future generations and the effect of research on them. Are these people, our descendents, to be considered “research participants” and when does their citizenship provide protection for their rights and freedom?
Another problem is the subtle scolding of governments and law-makers for presuming to regulate science (or limit funding?), although the “consensus” acknowledges the legitimacy of such regulation.
The most problematic aspect of the consensus is the complete lack of discussion of the basic function of government and the single “freedom” on which all others depend: the freedom not to be killed.
The wording in this document is too vague, and does not address many humans potentially endangered by a lack of defining “freedoms of citizens” and the “well-being, liberty and rights” of those currently living and those who are not yet alive.
As is often the case in bioethics “consensus” statements, I’m left with serious questions:
What is the status of humans both intra- and extra-corporeal artificially and naturally developed living organisms with human DNA (again, regardless of the source) who may not qualify as “citizens”?
Where is the protection for 400,000 American embryos or 1000 Chinese criminals who could be sacrificed for cures for “citizens”? Will a human descendent who begins life in an artificial womb or whose intelligence has been hampered be a protected “citizen”?
Edited 3/24/2012 to add Categories, clean up formatting.