Bioethics Group Wrestles with Stem Cell Issue
By Rich McManus
The bioethics interest group's last meeting of the spring semester on June 4 displayed in microcosm a larger debate that has lately concerned scientists, ethicists, patients, Congress and the administration: how to balance the excitement over the potential of embryonic stem cell research with strongly held views that such research is fundamentally immoral. As in the larger impasse, well-reported in the media as the Bush administration struggles to guide NIH on the issue, each side in the debate looks at the other over a seemingly unbridgeable abyss. Perhaps the only thing both sides can agree on was expressed by Dr. Gerald Keusch, director of the Fogarty International Center, who attended: "What's healthy is that the issue is being debated."
The meeting basically just an open discussion where any attendee, and even a reporter, was welcome to hold forth featured two guest speakers from the Christian tradition: Rector David Bird of Christ Episcopal Church in Georgetown, and Dr. Carol Taylor, a Roman Catholic nun from Georgetown University's Center for Clinical Bioethics. There were also scientists around the table, clearly eager to get on with a promising new avenue of study, as well as the father of a young girl with Parkinson's disease who gave a carefully reasoned and impassioned account of his daughter's unwillingness to be the beneficiary of any therapy that might have cost an embryo its existence.
"Religious ethics and science are not often in dialogue," observed Taylor, who noted that "ethics tells us what we ought to do in light of who we say we are." In Catholicism, and in views expressed by Pope John Paul II, no potential medical benefit is worth the destruction of a human embryo, she explained. The ends cannot justify the means. Rector Bird followed her halfway to that conclusion: "It is indisputable in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, at least I think, that God wills anything other than human healing...we cannot hide behind rules and regulations in pursuit of that goal." But he said he "couldn't disagree more" with the pope's assertion that potential benefits of stem cell research do not outweigh the rights of the embryo. "Episcopalians still look for a good end, even in cases of abortion."
Taylor observed that "science, in my experience, is not (morally) neutral," and that an individual's conscience must ultimately guide his or her actions. "We're obliged to inform our consciences as we grow up."
Bird resisted Taylor's reliance on moral absolutes: "Episcopalians believe that (moral stances) should be tentative, provisional and infrequent," to which Taylor responded with a laugh, "My tradition has never said that."
The father of the Parkinson's patient said that his family's ethical guidepost was actually medicine's, as expressed in the Hippocratic Oath: "Do no harm." "The possibility of evil (in research that destroys human embryos) is enormous," he said. "(My daughter) does not want to be even a small part of unleashing the whirlwind...Where will it all end? That's the fear...It was a painful decision to reach, it wasn't easy. And I admire her for it."
The topic of Nazi experimentation on Jewish prisoners during World War II came up, and their victimhood was compared to that of human embryos that might be destroyed in stem cell research. The big difference between then and now, explained Keusch, is that "here there is a debate; there (in Nazi Germany) there was no option at all."
Keusch's opinion is that only public oversight of research involving human embryonic stem cells can preserve ethical standards in a field being pursued, relatively unbounded, for now in the private sector.
As the meeting wound down, Bird noted that he represents a more liberal tradition than Catholicism. Concluded Taylor, "I'm delighted that this conversation has taken place."
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