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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 131-141

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Reflections on the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

Mary B. Mahowald

Suzanne Holland, Karen Lebacqz, and Laurie Zoloth, eds. The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. 288. $24.95 (paper).

MEDIA REPORTS OF ADVANCES in biotechnology have educated vast numbers of non-scientists about biological terms and processes about which they previously had little knowledge or interest. Journalists who provide these reports have varying degrees of scientific understanding themselves; in addition, they differ in their ability to communicate the relevant information accurately and clearly. Frequently, when the issue covered is ethically debatable, journalists seek the opinions of a new breed of academics, the "bioethicists." Because bioethicists are usually trained in disciplines other than the biological sciences, they often have only superficial knowledge of the science that underlies the issues addressed. Even those who are clinicians may lack deep or sophisticated understanding of relevant basic science. Some bioethicists obviously do more homework in this regard than others; and those whose views are scientifically most credible earn that credibility by utilizing pertinent and [End Page 131] current data from well-respected scientific sources. If the science on which they rely is weak, however, so are their ethical arguments. As Aristotle recognized, even if arguments are flawlessly reasoned, the credibility of their conclusions depends on the credibility of their premises.

In choosing which ethics "experts" to interview or quote, journalists generally select those who present opposing views; the more extreme the contrast, the more desirable they are to media planners. Journalists also prefer people who state their positions briefly and simply; complexity regarding science or ethics is difficult to convey in TV snippets or news clips. Some bioethicists refuse requests for media interviews for fear that they may be quoted out of context, misleadingly; others respond on grounds that they thus fulfill a responsibility to educate the public; still others, I have been told, call key reporters from time to time, offering publishable comments about a particularly intriguing case or issue. Media reports of their "expert" opinions may bring prestige to the individuals or their institutions.

One issue that continues to generate debate in the media and in the bioethics community is human embryonic stem cell research. In what follows, I wish to reflect on three aspects of this debate: the involvement of bioethicists, terminological difficulties, and problematic arguments. I will also consider possibilities for eliciting broader agreement about derivation of stem cells from human embryos. As context for these reflections, I begin with a brief sketch of the material covered in a recent book on the topic, The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy, edited by Holland, Lebacqz, and Zoloth (2001).

The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

The first part of The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate (hereafter, HESCD) lays the empirical groundwork for examining the ethical and policy questions raised. Scientists engaged in research supported by the Geron Corporation authored the first two chapters, separately explaining the underlying biology of stem cell research in terms intelligible to nonscientists. Another chapter, written by a bioethicist long acquainted with the topic at an institutional and governmental level, narrates the history of ethical review of the research.

Contributors to the next section of HESCD analyze the process and product of the National Bioethics Advisory Council (NBAC) in developing recommendations for human embryonic stem cell research. As a governmentally authorized body, the NBAC has a different moral standing and set of responsibilities than biotechnology companies such as Geron and Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). Although appointment of members may be politically influenced, deliberations of the NBAC are generally open to the public, and public comment is invited. Not tied to private industry, its recommendations are commonly viewed as more reliably in the public interest. Critiques of the [End Page 132] NBAC recommendations by authors of this section are consistent with that view.

The third section of HESCD identifies and interprets different "angles of vision" about human embryonic stem cell research...


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