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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 48.2 (2005) 211-228

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Altered Nuclear Transfer as a Morally Acceptable Means for the Procurement of Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Program in Human Biology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA 94305.

With the sequencing of the human genome and our increasing knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of basic cell functions, we are entering an era of rapid advance in the field of developmental biology. Current scientific interest in embryonic stem cells is a logical step in the progress of these studies and holds the hope of providing important research tools as well as possible therapeutic applications.

The ethical controversy surrounding cloning for biomedical research (CBR)1 and human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research arises from the fact that to obtain these cells living human embryos must be disaggregated and destroyed. Many Americans oppose such embryo destruction, believing that there is an implicit dignity and inviolability in the individual continuity of a human life from fertilization to natural death. Many others, however, believe that the benefits of advances in biomedical science outweigh these moral concerns. [End Page 211]

The present conflict over the moral status of the human embryo reflects deep differences in our basic convictions and is unlikely to be resolved through deliberation or debate. Likewise, a purely political solution will leave our country bitterly divided, eroding the social support and sense of noble purpose that is essential for the public funding of biomedical science. These concerns are already encoded in the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for embryo-destructive research and is the legislative foundation of the President's executive order restricting funding to ES cell lines created before August 9, 2001 (President's Council 2004, chap. 2). While there are currently no federally legislated constraints on the use of private funds for this research, there is a consensus in the scientific community that without NIH support for newly created ES cell lines, progress in this important realm of research will be severely constrained.

In joining with fellow members of the President's Council on Bioethics in support of a moratorium on CBR in July 2002, I considered this recommendation not an admission of ambivalence on matters of policy, but a recognition of the difficulty of the moral issues involved and an affirmation of the need for further discussion and deliberation (President's Council 2002). Throughout our proceedings over the past three years, it has become increasingly apparent that without clear and distinct moral principles, grounded in scientific evidence and reasoned moral argument, no policy can be effectively formulated or enforced. Most specifically, the proposed limitation of 14 days for research on human embryos and the prohibition against implantation appear to be arbitrarily set and therefore vulnerable to transgression through the persuasive promise of further scientific benefit. Clearly, a more thorough and thoughtful consideration of the moral status of the human embryo is warranted. It is in the spirit of this continuing discussion that I offer the personal perspectives that follow.

As our science is changing, so is the nature of our moral dilemmas. Each advance forces us to think more deeply about what it means to be human. As the scientific focus on genomics moves on to proteomics and now to the early stages of the study of development, we are confronted with the challenge of understanding the moral meaning of human life in its dynamics of change, as both potential and process. Concerns about cloning are likely to be just the beginning of a series of difficult ethical issues related to embryo experimentation and medical intervention in developing life. In addition, advances in developmental biology will open more deeply the ethical dilemmas of human-animal hybridization, extra-corporeal gestation, and genetic and cellular enhancement. Driven by the vast range of research applications and opportunities for clinical interventions in disease and disability (especially the open-ended possibilities promised by regenerative medicine), this technology will be powerfully propelled into the forefront...


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