Ethical Issues in Reproductive Technology

Article excerpt

JOPPPAH Interview with Dr. William Hurlbut

ABSTRACT: This interview is based on Dr. William Hurlbut's presentation at the APPPAH Congress held in San Francisco, CA in December, 2003. Dr. Hurlbut's presentation of scientific data and ethical issues surrounding reproductive technologies, particularly the topic of Cloning for Biomedical Research (CBR) was profound and moving. To quote from his closing remarks, "At this critical moment before we can go forward, we must recover some of the awe and wonder that is often absent in the practice of our science and even our ethical philosophy; we must pause in the rush of our progress to reconsider the full majesty of human life." In order to share some of the wisdom dispensed in his presentation and bring us up to date, JOPPPAH is proud to present Dr. Hurlbut's response to our questions.

KEY WORDS: cloning, CBR, biomedical research, regenerative medicine, reproductive technology, human development.

JOPPPAH: Dr. Hurlbut, thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions. Could you first tell us about your work with the President's Council on Bioethics?

Dr. Hurlbut: There are eighteen of us, from a variety of backgrounds ranging from science and medicine to social policy and law. The President appointed us to address the complex human and moral issues that are arising with advances in biotechnology. He asked us to help serve as the conscience of the country, to engage and educate the public and to advise him and the nation on issues of policy. I consider it a great privilege and honor to serve my country in this way and I find it the most challenging and fascinating thing I've ever done.

JOPPPAH: Narrowing this to ethical issues in reproductive technology, could you give us an update on the current status of such technology?

Dr. Hurlbut: The whole realm of reproduction is crucial because it is at once of central human significance and a gateway technology for both advances in biomedical science and possible interventions in human life. On the positive front Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) means that many couples have avoided the heartache of an empty cradle. But, at the same time, advances in ART have continuously pushed the borders of our ethical intuitions and challenged us to think more clearly about the moral standing of developing life, the meaning of natural relationships, and the rightful role of choice in genetic screening (and perhaps one day in genetic enhancement).

As we gain instrumental control over the production of gametes and the generation of life in the laboratory we face many strange and unfamiliar options. Studies with mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells suggest we may one day be able to generate oocytes in a laboratory from either females or males; scientists have joined cells from two embryos together to form an entirely new 'tetra-parental' embryo (with the idea that this might one day help protect against transmission of genetic diseases) and, of course, human cloning opens prospects for a conceptual shift from procreation to manufacture.

But more centrally, we are seeing, as with new eyes, the wonders of our early development-the fantastic symphony of process that unfolds in the formation of each human person.

JOPPPAH: Focusing now on the primary topic in your presentation, cloning for biomedical research, you discussed the four-year moratorium on such research that the Council recommended. Can you give us some background on this recommendation and the current status?

Dr. Hurlbut: We made that recommendation and only last winter did scientists successfully accomplish even the first most tentative success in cloning human embryos. And even then the project was swamped in ethical controversy over how the researchers managed to procure 242 human oocytes (including implications that lab assistants were donors). We made our recommendation so that our society could calm down, slow down and give more thorough and thoughtful analysis to this complex moral dilemma. …