Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How to Think about Stemming an Insurgency

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

How to Think about Stemming an Insurgency

Article excerpt

In the first issue of the Hastings Center Report I edited, Gilbert Meilaender wrote an article titled The Point of a Ban--Or: How to Think about Stem Cell Research." The article appeared following a report from the National Bioethics Advisory Council in which NBAC argued that human embryos are due special moral respect, but that scientists may nonetheless conduct research on them, destroying them in doing so. Meilaender argued that if we think human embryos merit special respect, and if we take the idea of "respect" seriously, then we will almost certainly reject NBAC's permissive stance toward medical research, even if the research might lead eventually to therapies for terrible diseases. The point of a ban, Meilaender held, is precisely that it does not easily give way before utilitarian concerns. Meilaender contemplated only one way in which a utilitarian imperative might overwhelm the sort of sanctions that lead to moral bans: following Michael Walzer's ruminations about just war theory, he allowed that some circumstances generate a "utilitarianism of extremity," in which an enemy simply must be defeated because it poses "an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives" (Walzer's words). But in Meilaender's view, the diseases researchers hope to cure using stem cells, bad as they are, do not threaten to destroy everything decent.

That was the January-February issue of 2001. Later that year, of course, warfare itself was a pressing topic again. At first, it did not look like a pressing topic for bioethics; it seemed rather to overshadow bioethics. Certainly it briefly overwhelmed the national debate about stem cells. In the years since September 11, however, the uniquely horrifying bioethical issues of warfare have been brought back to mind. Several Report authors, including At Law columnist Larry Gostin, have discussed the threat of bioterrorism and how public health agencies, medical researchers, and health care workers should respond to it. …

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