Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Overseeing Research on Therapeutic Cloning: A Private Ethics Board Responds to Its Critics

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Overseeing Research on Therapeutic Cloning: A Private Ethics Board Responds to Its Critics

Article excerpt

On 24 November, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology announced that they had created the world's first cloned human embryo. The announcement set off a storm of media reports. Stem cells and human cloning, which had been pushed out of public view by the events of 11 September, were once again front page news.

For those of us who have served on ACT's private Ethics Advisory Board, the November announcement is a source of satisfaction. We are aware of the great strides made by ACT scientists in reaching this point. We are pleased with the role played in this accomplishment by an extraordinary egg donor program whose ethical parameters we helped set up and monitor. Above all, we believe that a halting first step has been taken toward a new era of "regenerative medicine." As a result of this research, individuals suffering from serious disorders or injuries might eventually receive life-saving transplants of immunologically compatible tissues or organs.

Getting to this point has not been easy. In early July of 2001, the work of the EAB itself became a center of controversy when The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers ran stories on the cloning research, all of them mentioning the board. Attention soon focused on an announcement by Glenn McGee of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics that he had quit the board in October of 2000. McGee distributed to media and to a bioethics listserv the text of his letter of resignation. (1)

McGee's resignation is neither an objection to the therapeutic cloning program itself nor a principled critique of the phenomenon of private ethics boards. He argued solely that the company had not notified him of its animal cloning program, leaving him out of the loop, as he construed it. McGee had not attended any of the board's meetings and had not participated in the almost nine months of work the board put into getting the therapeutic cloning research program up and running. These facts notwithstanding, his resignation was widely reported as a sweeping protest against both the cloning research and the work of ACT'S ethics board. One web article caught the flavor, if not the substance, of the controversy when it headlined its story, "Pennsylvania Bioethicist Launches `J'accuse'."

The Critique

In the wake of the initial flurry of press reports, however, McGee articulated a detailed critique of private corporate bioethics boards like ACT's, one that we think deserves careful consideration. Such boards, he said, are created primarily to give an aura of acceptability to anything a company decides to do. As McGee put it, "What looked like a ringside seat to exciting research that needed ethical evaluation turns out to be an ethics stamp of approval." (2) He also asked whether a privately held company like ACT could ever be open enough with information to justify having an ethics board.

McGee is not alone in these criticisms. In late 1998, the Geron Corporation, which had funded the first groundbreaking work on human embryonic stem cells, announced that it, too, had formed an Ethics Advisory Board to provide guidance for its research program, and in short order that board published the broad ethical guidelines it had developed for Geron. (3) Many concerns were voiced about the board's work in the ensuing discussion. For example, Gladys White asked what assurance there was that a company would listen to and abide by the recommendations of its ethics board. She worried that the proliferation of private ethics advisory boards would lead to a diversity of conflicting recommendations. In a worst case scenario, she noted, a board will be composed of individuals who have vested financial interests in the research and who can easily be persuaded to support almost anything the company wants to do. (4)

Our purpose in speaking out is not to dismiss these concerns. …

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