The Role of Scientists in the Beginning-of-Life Debate:A 25-year Retrospective
This article examines scientific testimony given during the past 25 years surrounding the issue of when life begins. Although the biological facts were presented clearly, the moral and philosophical issues proved to be problematic. Often those in government tried to use science to substantiate their own philosophical beliefs. Scientists need to present facts to society and to political leaders as clearly and as dispassionately as possible in order to continue to help the public understand complicated biological processes. Scientists also need to help ensure that science is not misused or misinterpreted to justify moral, theological, or philosophical beliefs.
During the next two years the possibility exists that Roe v. Wade will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The changes that would result would be monumental. Jeffrey Rosen (2006) recently analyzed what these effects would be at the state level, in Congress, in the White House, and in the courts. Rosen speculates that "The overturning of Roe would lead to the extraordinary spectacle of fifty state legislatures fighting over the questions of when life begins" [End Page 603] (p. 58). This would lead to an army of scientists marching to state capitals to advise their lawmakers of the "scientific facts" on the beginning of life. Even if Roe is not overturned, efforts will continue at the state level to restrict abortion, and scientists will be called upon to offer opinions as to when life begins.
This paper will review previous key testimony by scientists in the arena of public policy related to early human development and will suggest roles that scientists should play in the future. It does so within the context of scientists' testimony before congressional committees in 1981, during the Human Life Bill hearings, and between 1998 and 2004, in the debate over stem cell research. As the need for scientific testimony continues, the question is what role scientists should play in these current and future public policy debates.
In the spring and summer of 1981, Congress held a series of hearings to deliberate "a bill to provide that human life shall be deemed to exist from conception" (Human Life Bill 1982). In 1998–99, Congress heard testimony on stem cell research. In December 2005, the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion submitted a report to the governor and legislature of South Dakota. In all of these debates, scientists were called to testify about the "scientific" underpinnings of the issue under consideration. One of the most important issues under consideration was when life began.
For the hearings on the Human Life Bill, the Committee on the Judiciary was chaired by then-Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina; the House hearings were held before the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, chaired by John East from North Carolina. In December 1981, the Subcommittee passed the bill and found that "the life of each human being begins at conception." In addition the Bill stated: "Congress further finds that the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects all human beings" (Human Life Bill 1982).
Over 20 years later, Congress was still debating the issues that surround the concept of when life begins and when society confers personhood on that life. Whether it was stem cell research (Stem Cell Research 1999), the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (2003), the Pain of the Unborn Act (2005), or the Report of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion (South Dakota Task Force 2005), scientists have been actively involved in the debate over when life begins and related issues. During those 25 years, the biological and clinical sciences have seen an explosion of new information, and a wealth of new biotechnologies has become part of the today's culture. Genetic testing, ultrasound scanning, embryo biopsy, and other assisted reproductive technologies have dramatically changed the fertility of many couples, raising fundamental questions about when human life begins. [End Page 604]
The Human Life Bill
During the 1981 Human Life Bill hearings, two views were presented concerning the beginning of human life. The first was quite direct in stating that life begins at conception. Geneticist Jerome Lejeune articulated this position: "Life has a very, very long history, but each individual has a very neat beginning—the moment of conception" (Human Life Bill 1982, p. 8). Hymie Gordon, a medical geneticist then at the Mayo Clinic, testified that "the zygote—the first cell which results from fertilization of the egg by the sperm—is a living organism" (p. 13). Micheline Mathews-Roth quoted over 10 textbooks in embryology or human reproduction and concluded: "Thus, we can see that it is widely accepted and widely taught that human beings as well as other organisms reproducing by sexual reproduction . . . start their existence at the time of conception or fertilization, as a single cell, the zygote (p. 16).
A second group of scientists and physicians who testified moved the discussion from life to personhood. This was most directly identified as an issue by Yale geneticist Leon Rosenberg, who countered the arguments presented earlier:
The crux—or if you will the heart—of the bill before you is the statement in section 1 which states "that present-day scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that actual human life exists from conception." I must respectfully but firmly disagree with this statement for two reasons: First because I know of no scientific evidence which bears on the questions of when actual human life exists; second because I believe that the notion embodied in the phrase "actual human life" is not a scientific one, but rather a philosophic and religious one.(p. 49)
Later, Jasper F. Williams, Sr., former President of the National Medical Association, pointed out: "I know when human life begins, but I do not know when that group of cells becomes a human being, whether it is alive or not" (p. 53). Finally, Sherman M. Mellinkoff, Dean of the UCLA School of Medicine, put the position in sharp focus when he wrote the following to the committee:
Specifically my responses to your three questions are as follows:
1. Do you believe that the question of human personhood is a medical and scientific question?
Response: No. Medicine and science can describe the biological and genetic processes. Human judgment, drawing on ethical or religious beliefs, ascribes value and meaning to those processes as they relate to human personhood.
2. Is it your view that the question of human personhood is in part a moral, ethical, philosophical, religious or political question? [End Page 605]
Response: It is primarily and perhaps exclusively philosophical, religious and/or political.
3. Would you agree that medical and scientific data alone cannot deter-mine what the definition of human personhood should be in the present context?
Response: Yes. Through medical and scientific research, we now have relatively sophisticated understanding of the biological and genetic processes of human reproduction and prenatal development. It is well-established that when a human sperm and ovum unite, the resultant zygote contains the biological and genetic material of a new human organism. (p. 70)
In 1981, then, some scientists presented scientific data to suggest that "life" began at conception, while others looked at the same data and focused on "human life" and the other issues associated with it as they directed their comments to the notion of personhood. This position was most eloquently stated by Fredrick Robbins, a pediatrician and researcher at Case Western Reserve University, and a Nobel laureate. In his minority views, Senator Max Baucus quoted Robbins:
Even the most elementary understanding of biology suggests that, from the moment of conception, the human zygote is biologically alive in that it is capable of dividing and growing. That there is biological "life" is not in dispute for the fertilized egg or for other cells of human origin. What is at question is at what point the growing mass of cells—that is, the product of conception—takes on the attributes of "personhood." That is, at what point in the sequence of development do we choose to say that the organism is a person and there-fore, of special value?
The amended bill read:
Upon the basis of these findings, and in the exercise of the powers of Congress, including its power under section 5 of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the Congress hereby recognizes that for the purpose of enforcing the obligation of the States under the fourteenth amendment not to deprive persons of life without due process of law, each human life exists from conception, without regard to race, sex, age, health, defect or condition of dependency, and for this purpose "person" includes all human beings.(pp. 1–2)
The bill never made it through Congress.
Stem Cell Research
In the late 1990s, stem cell research became a major focus of national debate. At the core of this debate was whether the federal government should fund research to develop embryonic stem cell lines. Again, the issue was "when does human life begin?" [End Page 606]
Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos—the products of in-vitro fertilization technology—that develop from the four-cell stage to the blastocyst stage but are not returned to the mother. Instead, they are frozen and stored for later use (but they remain unused in storage). There are hundreds of thousands of these days-old embryos in freezers throughout the country. The debate is whether—with parental permission—they should be used for stem cell research.
In the 1998–99 Congressional hearings on stem cell research, scientists noted that the embryos were capable of becoming fetuses if returned to the uterus, but would not be used because the families had no need for them. Senator Arlen Spector highlighted this point in his questioning of Lawrence Goldstein of the University of California San Diego on the embryos that would be used to make human embryonic stem cell lines:
Let me ask you the first question, Dr. Goldstein. Picking up on your statement about obtaining by ethical means, the embryo is a sperm-fertilized egg and will grow into a fetus upon implantation in the uterus. What we have here are discarded embryos, so there is no possibility of the embryos which are used for stem cell research to be implanted and to produce a person, is that a correct scientific statement?(Stem Cell Research 1999, pp. 108–9)
Goldstein responded by saying that he agreed, and offered that he actually thought that the embryos could be damaged at that point and that it might be unethical to implant them.
The status of the blastocyst was at the heart of the debate on stem cells. Then as today, a lack of consensus in the United States on the status of the embryo at this stage of development. The moral status of the embryo and when personhood is conferred cannot be agreed upon. In 1994, an ad hoc group of consultants to the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH submitted a reported that stated:
[a] pluralistic approach, with its emphasis on a variety of intersecting and mu-tually reinforcing criteria, is less subject to the specific criticisms aimed at each of the single criterion views. This approach also corresponds with the steady increase in moral respect many people give to prenatal life in its various stages from conception to birth. In contrast to many of the single criterion positions, the pluralistic approach accords some moral weight to the preimplantation embryo, but does not rule out well-justified research.(Human Embryo Research Panel 1994)
In 1999, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission published its report, Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research. They, too, adopted an intermediate position, where the embryo is given some moral status but not the same status as that of infants and children. And in its 2004 report on Monitoring Stem Cell Research, the President's Council on Bioethics stated:
the case for developing moral status, as articulated by a great number of participants in the policy debates of the past several years, often results in an expression [End Page 607] of what has sometimes been termed the "special respect" approach to human embryos: an embryo in its earliest stages is not accorded the full moral standing of a human person, but it is nonetheless regarded as deserving some degree of respect and is treated as more than a mere object or collection of somatic cells in tissue culture.(p. 82)
South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion
In his testimony before the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion (2005), embryologist Bruce Carlson testified "that it is a scientific fact that an abortion at any age of gestation terminates the life of a living human being" (p. 30). However, Carlson, as well as three others, Marie Peeters-Ney, Mark Rosen, and Swedish scientist Ola Didrik Saugstad, made the point that while the biological fact was not in question in their mind, the moral, philosophical, and ethical considerations were not the same as the biological facts. The issue of when human life begins and when personhood begins remains a focus of discussion.
Scientists and Public Policy
In each of these cases, there was a group of scientists who were comfortable stating that life began at conception. These scientists talked about life in absolute, biological terms and did not raise the issue of personhood. In 1981, they relied mainly on embryology, while 25 years later they not only had embryologists to substantiate the science, but also a molecular biologist. The field of molecular biology was in its infancy in the early 1980s. By 2005, it had dramatically changed the field of biology. In 1981, Hymie Gordon stated that "By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception" (Human Life Bill 1982, p. 13). By contrast, in his testimony before the South Dakota legislature, David Fu-Chi Mark described nine molecular biological techniques that were not available in the early 1980s and that shed light on the biology of the newborn child, and stated emphatically: "There can no longer be any doubt that each human being is totally unique from the very beginning of his or her life at fertilization" (South Dakota Task Force 2005, p. 25).
Those opposing the 1981 Human Life Bill and those questioning the South Dakota Task Force dealt with their position in similar ways. In 1981, medical geneticist Jessica Davis argued "There is no scientific evidence that can tell us when life begins. For me, it is a theological, religious, philosophical, ethical, cultural, or moral question" (Human Life Bill 1982, p. 106). In the South Dakota hearings, scientists made the point that while the biological fact about when life begins is certain, the "biological fact should not be confused with moral or philosophical considerations" (South Dakota Task Force 2005, p. 30). Thus scientists have performed the same role in much the same way over the course of the last 25 years.
In testifying before Congress some scientists have chosen to put forth their [End Page 608] views on the moral status of the embryo, while others have not. Although the moral status of the embryo is a not a problem in the scientists' purview, public policy makers want this issue resolved and often believe that scientists can help them address this issue. Some legislators believe that scientists can directly answer questions that go beyond the strict realm of science. This might be akin to the scientistic movement of 17th- and 18th-century England and France (Ben-David 1971). In Enlightenment Europe, scientists actually had to distance themselves from royalty who wanted to use science for their own gain. The contemporary scientific community may have to insulate itself from the pressures of government in a similar way.
When biology is expected to validate and provide the foundation for public policy, unjustified pressure may be placed upon scientists. As Jaki (1978) states: "Scientism is never a genuine reverence for science but a harnessing of science for a nonscientific purpose" (p. 218). Perhaps this is exactly what congressional committees are asking for in bringing scientists forth to testify: they want scientists to validate their ethical positions. Scientists can describe what they know now, but they cannot state that this knowledge will remain static. Nor can they generate recommendations about what ought to be done strictly from a delineation of embryological, genetic, or molecular facts. So a conflict exists between those in government who turn to science for moral answers and those in science.
Scientists play two roles in ethical debates raised by beginning-of-life, end-of-life, and quality-of-life issues. In the first, very public role, scientists are advisors to the public policy makers. They must present the facts as dispassionately as possible to those who will be making the laws governing reproduction, child-bearing, medicine, and science. As the past 25 years of hearings makes very clear in the abortion debate, they will be asked specifically when life begins, and then further when human life begins, and finally they will be asked when personhood begins. Despite pressure to go beyond it, however, they can only answer the first question factually.
In their second role, scientists are the key players whose experiments come under scrutiny and are the subject of the ethical debates themselves. As Russo and Denious (2005) point out, scientists must understand how the scientific enterprise can be manipulated and used. The public also must understand how scientists can use the media to further their own positions. Scientists have a vested interest in many of the questions they are investigating, so they need to make sure the information they present is accurate and properly disseminated to the public.
In 2004, the Connecticut Law Review presented two opposing viewpoints on the use of science in public policy. In the first, Ann Kiessling, a biochemist, went into length about the language of early embryology. Kiessling (2004) discussed a "new lexicon" saying that "New terminology clarifies that the societal impact of emerging technologies needs to be newly interpreted" (p. 1051). In describing the biology of reproduction, she used terms such as prospective conceptus and preembryo that were introduced in the 1990s with the advent of assisted [End Page 609] reproductive technologies. Kevin Quinn (2004) questioned Kiessling's revamped lexicon of early embryology and suggested it would allow for a "redefinition" that would assuage society's guilt about dealing with an embryo and would also render the moral status of the embryo moot: if we don't call it an embryo, it isn't an embryo, and therefore it isn't a life. And if an embryo is no longer a life, it becomes permissible to use it for research or for cloning. Quinn's comments highlight the fact that redefinition of terminology is a dubious way to solve a major public policy issue.
In contrast, Keith Latham and Carmen Sapienza (2004), two developmental biologists, took a different tack. They began by asking "what is an embryo?" and summarized the issues at stake:
Historically, this is a simple question with an equally simple answer: An embryo is the product of the successful union of sperm and egg. In biological terms, the creation of an embryo marks the beginning of life. An embryo has the unique property that is has some measurable potential to progress down a path of development, becoming in the best cases, a fully formed individual of the same type that produced the sperm and egg from which it arose. This contrasts with the normal fate of either sperm or egg in the absence of fertilization; both cell types are destined to die without further development.(p. 1171)
For Latham and Sapienza, the main issue is scientists' role in educating the public. For them, the clear delineation of the facts will give public policymakers the ability to address the concerns of society.
What scientists ought to do is present the facts to the public policymakers as dispassionately as possible and then let the politicians decide where to draw the line. As one of us (Caplan) stated before the 2005 Pain of the Unborn Subcommittee: "there is no clear-cut consensus out there. So to mandate a triggerpoint and say this is when it has to be done seems to me to not be consistent with what Congress ought to be doing about invoking the power of science to serve a social or an ethical goal even if it is an admirable or perceived as an important goal. I don't think the consensus is out there to support what is claimed in the legislation" (p.24). Whether is it about when the fetus feels pain or when personhood should be conferred during development, scientists can bring the data and the knowledge base to the public so the public can use it as evidence to come up with a public policy. Yet it is incumbent upon the scientists to be careful not to let their own philosophical bent infuse the data with more power than they have.
Perhaps an approach such as the one suggested by Maxson and Taylor (2002) ought to be adopted:
The insistence that religious belief must somehow have scientific validation triv-ializes both science and religion. Science is a mode of inquiry that provides us precisely the sort of knowledge that we need to make sense of our empirical world. After all, who among us is likely to fly a jet designed by a theologian or [End Page 610] worse yet, an administrator? At the same time, spiritual truths need not be bound to the tests of empirical evidence. Faith can help us understand the empirical world—but need not be bound by the standards of it. Spiritual truths, as we see them, are of a sort that encourages belief without—occasionally, even in spite of—particular kinds of empirical evidence.(p. 735)
What Ought to Be the Scientist's Role in Public Policy?
What scientists need to present in public policy forums is a clear elucidation of the facts. Scientists agree on the biological events that occur in the early development of the human, and the descriptions have not changed in over 50 years. The scientists' role in public policymaking, then, should be first and foremost to provide this information to the public. Scientists can describe the facts as they are known, and then let society make the moral decisions based upon that information. That is not to say scientists can't also help in making decisions. But they should clearly separate their roles and as dispassionately as possible present the scientific information to the public.
Scientists need to make the public aware of the terminology used to describe certain events, be certain the terminology is used correctly, and give the public a clear description of controversy when there is lack of agreement. As Moreno and Berger (2007) have recently pointed out, there are "attempts to define scientific terms for political advantage." For example, the question of what is an embryo is often raised. Embryology texts start the embryonic period at fertilization (Carlson 1999; Moore and Persaud 2003; Sadler 2006), and embryonic development from day one through 60 has been clearly and concisely described, catalogued, and divided into the 23 Carnegie stages. The obstetrics literature similarly states that "it is conventional to refer to the products of conception not as a fertilized ovum, or zygote, but as an embryo" (Cunningham et al. 2003, ch. 4). So the process of embryogenesis is well understood and well described. Whether you call it an embryo or a blastocyst on day six of gestation, all the relevant scientific texts agree on the entity and what it looks like and use the Carnegie stages to make sure everyone is talking about the same time of development.
The problem therefore is not with the process of development or its description, but rather with the other adjectives used to describe the embryo/blastocyst. Is it living? Is it human yet? Is it a person? Much like the end-of-life debate, the beginning-of-life debate focuses on how you define such concepts as life, human, and personhood. Again, as Jessica Davis said in her testimony in the 1981 Human Life Bill hearings: "There is no scientific evidence that can tell us when life begins. For me, it is a theological, religious, philosophical, ethical, cultural, or moral question" (p. 106). Those philosophical, theological, and scientific arguments surrounding the question of when human life begins are discussed in Gilbert and his colleagues' Bioethics and the New Embryology (2006). [End Page 611]
There are other examples of the type of testimony that scientists should be giving concerning the human life debate. In the report of the Human Embryo Research Panel (1994), the task force described a single criterion of moral personhood versus a pluralistic approach, thus relating the early embryology to the multiple viewpoints present in the society of the United States: "Americans hold widely different views on the question of the moral value of prenatal life at its various stages. These views are often based on deeply held religious and ethical beliefs. It is not the role of those who help form public policy to decide which of these views is correct. Instead public policy represents an effort to arrive at a reasonable accommodation to diverse interests" (p. 39). And in Monitoring Stem Cell Research, the President's Council on Bioethics (2004) presented the data as they relate to continuity versus discontinuity between early and later human life:
Many participants in the debate take the question of the biological continuity or discontinuity between nascent and later human life to be crucially significant. Some argue that the fundamental organismal continuity from the moment of fertilization until natural death means that no lines can be drawn between embryos and adults. Others argue, on the contrary, that some particular point of discontinuity (or the sum of several such points) marks a morally significant distinction between stages, which difference should guide our treatment of human embryos.(p. 76)
When an embryo/fetus becomes human or when it achieves personhood is at the heart of this debate, and how society relates personhood to the stages of early embryology is at the heart of the public's role in policy decisions concerning the beginning of life.
This is not to say that scientists cannot put forth their own philosophical positions at the same time that they are presenting scientific testimony. They are entitled to as much as any other citizen. They should not, however, cross the fine line that separates science from normative ethics. Doing so damages the credibility of the scientific enterprise and of the information scientists present. It is crucial to acknowledge when the scientific community doesn't know or cannot agree on a fact or set of facts, rather than try to bend those facts to suit the moral issue under discussion. Once the facts are presented, then what society—including the scientists—ought to do with those facts is open to discussion.