Ethics of Stem-Cell Research: A Framework for Ethical Dialogue regarding Sources of Conflict

Article excerpt


One need hardly point out that Darwin's (1859) "Origin" produced controversy from its first appearance. Equally obvious is the fact that, however much value scientists place on evolutionary theory as an explanatory mechanism, the theory remains controversial outside of scientific circles and within nearly every venue in which scientific circles overlap with other areas of inquiry. The controversy exceeds even that of Galileo's (1632/1967) heliocentric viewpoint in his Dialogue, prompting Stephen Gould to claim the controversy has reached the point at which "the very integrity of education hangs in the balance" (Alters and Alters 2001, p. 1). Indeed, evolution may well be the only scientific theory about which scientists have felt compelled to write a book to inform educators about how to deal with "a war within scientific classrooms" (Alters and Alters 2001, p. 14). Public attitudes about evolution, similar to those concerning abortion and capital punishment, have become polarized such that most people hold a position that allows little latitude for rational consideration of informational contrary to their position (beaux, Dane, and Wrightsman 1993). The purpose of the present paper is to present a framework for discussing the ethics of stem-cell research in hopes of preventing its joining the ranks of polarized attitudes.

I do not wish to imply that stem-cell research is not yet controversial. Indeed, the variety of governmental positions on various types of stem-cell research provides but one indication of extent to which disagreements exist within the worldwide community, and sometimes with a single nation. The General Assembly of the United Nations failed to reach agreement on a treaty regarding somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as SCNT (Caulfield and von Tigerstrom 2005). Caulfield and Bubela (2007) report that Ireland and Austria forbid any research involving embryos while Italy is moving toward a similar ban. United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, and South Korea, in contrast, allow virtually all types of stem-cell research, while France and Canada allow some types of stem research; SCNT was, however, recently made a criminal activity in Canada. The President of the United States froze embryonic stem-cell research funding, including SCNT (Bush 2001), after which California voters responded by approving a $3 billion bond to fund fetal stem-cell research, including SCNT (Californians approve stem cell research funding 2004). Aramesh (2007) reports that Iran permits stem-cell research, including SCNT, and notes that Muslim scholars prohibit only research directed toward reproductive cloning. (The latter position is in line with virtually all bioethicists.) These disagreements notwithstanding, most political jurisdictions have no explicit policy regarding stem-cell research; in all jurisdictions, the absence of a framework for dialogue prevents many from considering rationally the ethical aspects of stem-cell research. If we are to reach consensus regarding the ethics of stem-cell research, we must have a single framework, a common language with which to discuss differences.

It is important that any framework for discussing the propriety of stem-cell research be presented at the conceptual or principled level. Ethical discussions are not about whether or not a rule or law has been broken; such are moral, legal, or administrative decisions. Instead, ethical discussions are about whether or not a rule or standard is worthwhile or about which of several, incompatible rules should be given priority (e.g., Dane and Parish 2006; Schroeder 2000; Singer 2000). As has been illustrated, rules can change from one jurisdiction to another or, as noted below, from one set of religious rules to another. Principles, in contrast, tend to be more generalizable, more applicable to a wider variety of situations, locations, and topics. Consider, for example, the variety of religious positions regarding the beginning of human life, which range from conception to an infant's first cry to as long as several years after birth (Morowitz and Trefil 1992). …


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