On Human Embryos and Medical Research: An Appeal for Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy

Issues in Law & Medicine, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

On Human Embryos and Medical Research: An Appeal for Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy


On Human Embryos and Medical Research: An Appeal for Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy*

Recent scientific advances in human stem cell research have brought into fresh focus the dignity and status of the human embryo. These advances have prompted a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund stem cell research which is dependent upon the destruction of human embryos. Moreover, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) is calling for a modification of the current ban against federally funded embryo research, to permit direct federal funding for destructive harvesting of stem cells from human embryos. These developments require that the legal, ethical, and scientific issues associated with this research be critically addressed and articulated. Our careful consideration of these issues leads to the conclusion that human stem cell research requiring the destruction of human embryos is objectionable on legal, ethical, and scientific grounds. Moreover, destruction of human embryonic life is unnecessary for medical progress, as alternative methods of obtaining human stem cells and of repairing and regenerating human tissue exist and continue to be developed.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Violates Existing Law and Policy

In November 1998, two independent teams of U.S. scientists reported that they had succeeded in isolating and culturing stem cells obtained from human embryos and fetuses. Stem cells are the cells from which all 210 different kinds of tissue in the human body originate. Because many diseases result from the death or dysfunction of a single cell type, scientists believe that the introduction of healthy cells of this type into a patient may restore lost or compromised function. Now that human embryonic stem cells can be isolated and multiplied in the laboratory, some scientists believe that treatments for a variety of diseases-such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's-may be within reach. While we in no way dispute the fact that the ability to treat or heal suffering persons is a great good, we also recognize that not all methods of achieving a desired good are morally or legally justifiable. If this were not so, the medically accepted and legally required practices of informed consent and of seeking to do no harm to the patient could be ignored whenever some "greater good" seems achievable.

One of the great hallmarks of American law has been its solicitous protection of the lives of individuals, especially the vulnerable. Our nation's traditional protection of human life and human rights derives from an affirmation of the essential dignity of every human being. Likewise, the international structure of human rights law-one of the great achievements of the modern world-is founded on the conviction that when the dignity of one human being is assaulted, all of us are threatened. The duty to protect human life is specifically reflected in the homicide laws of all fifty states. Furthermore, federal law and the laws of many states specifically protect vulnerable human embryos from harmful experimentation. Yet in recently publicized experiments, stem cells have been harvested from human embryos in ways which destroy the embryos.

Despite an existing congressional ban on federally-funded human embryo research, the Department of Health and Human Services determined on January 15, 1999 that the government may fund human embryonic stem cell research. The stated rationales behind this decision are that stem cells are not embryos (which itself may be a debatable point) and that research using cells obtained by destroying human embryos can be divorced from the destruction itself. However, even NBAC denies this latter claim, as is evident by the following statement in their Report on Stem Cell Research:

Whereas researchers using fetal tissue are not responsible for the death of the fetus, researchers using stem cells derived from embryos will typically be implicated in the destruction of the embryo. …

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On Human Embryos and Medical Research: An Appeal for Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy
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