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Human Biomedicine and the Problem of Governance
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Human Biomedicine and the Problem of Governance

I appreciate the opportunity given me by the editors of Perspectives on Biology and Medicine to reflect on my experience on the President's Council on Bioethics and the work it has produced. In light of the fact that I never submitted a personal statement at the time of the publication of the Council's 2002 report Human Cloning and Human Dignity, I particularly welcome this opportunity to clarify my views on this subject.

Contrary to the Council's critics, our group from the beginning had a healthy balance of views on the tortured "moral status of the embryo" question. Unsurprisingly for a panel nominated by a pro-life President, there was a strong minority committed to the view that full human status began at conception. But there was another equally strong minority that believed strongly that embryos had no particular moral status and could be cloned or otherwise used for stem cell research. I found myself, with several other members of the Council, in between these camps. I believe that human embryos have an intermediate moral status: they are not the moral equivalents of infants, nor are they simply clumps of cells like any other tissue sample that can be used and discarded at will. There are other things that have a similar intermediate moral status. Human cadavers, for example, can be used instrumentally in the training of medical students or for research, but they cannot be disposed of at will and must be treated at all times with a certain degree of respect. For reasons that I lay out more systematically in [End Page 195] my book Our Posthuman Future (2002), I believe that full moral status is something that is gradually acquired over time (both developmental and evolutionary). Human beings acquire it gradually during prenatal development, and do not stop acquiring it even at birth. This gradual acquisition of moral status is reflected in the fact that we give full political rights only to adults and not to children.

The implication of an embryo's intermediate moral status is that it can be used instrumentally, but only for serious purposes and with a certain degree of respect due an entity that has the potential to become a full human being. I believe that embryos can be used as a source of stem cells for research, but that the process ought to be under social control to ensure that these serious purposes are met. This means, at a minimum, a regulatory system that keeps track of embryos and makes sure that they are not used for purposes other than serious scientific research (e.g., implantation to produce a child). Such a regulatory system would solve the enforcement problem with respect to reproductive cloning, which was one of the reasons I had earlier supported a broad cloning ban.

While I have a number of ethical objections to reproductive cloning, I do not oppose research cloning per se. My objections are largely consequential. I am concerned about the precedent that this kind of cloning will have for other types of research further down the road: having permitted the creation of cloned embryos in order to harvest stem cells, will we at some point want to clone fetuses to harvest complete organs and tissues? No one today advocates this, but people's moral principles tend not to be deeply grounded when there are research incentives weighing on the other side. Not long ago those advocating stem cell research swore that they would draw the line at research cloning, but soon found the latter quite acceptable when the need arose.

I voted, with a majority of the Council, in favor of a recommendation to the President to support a total ban on reproductive cloning and a four-year moratorium on research cloning. While other members of the Council who shared my views on the intermediate moral status of embryos voted to permit research cloning, I supported the moratorium for a number of prudential reasons.

First, it seemed to me that a four-year moratorium would not seriously slow down the pace of research in this area. Supporters of stem cell research and research...