Global Bioethics Hopes, Fears, and New Voices: As Science Increasingly Crosses Borders, So Do the Implications of Deeply Personal Health Sciences. Can New Voices Help in Bioethical Dialogue?

By Liu, Jennifer; Gardner, Deborah | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Global Bioethics Hopes, Fears, and New Voices: As Science Increasingly Crosses Borders, So Do the Implications of Deeply Personal Health Sciences. Can New Voices Help in Bioethical Dialogue?


Liu, Jennifer, Gardner, Deborah, Issues in Science and Technology


During the 1990s, James Grifo, a physician and researcher at New York University, had been working to develop a technique to help treat certain kinds of infertility. Although in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments had been successful for many of his patients, IVF could not help women whose eggs were genetically sound and could be fertilized, but were not viable enough to grow into a healthy embryo. In such cases, Grifo imagined it might be possible to remove the nucleus from a donor egg from a healthy woman, replace it with the gene-carrying nucleus taken from the patient's egg, and then implant the reconstructed egg into the patient's uterus where it would continue to develop. Because the implanted egg would retain the mother's DNA, she would give birth to a biologically related child.

Although the idea had never been tested, it gave hope to one of Grifo's patients who desperately wanted a biologically related child. Willing to gamble on this coveted goal, she gave Grifo half a million dollars over 10 years to work on the technique.

It was a basic human desire combined with unfortunate circumstances, but also with the extraordinary potential that scientific research seemed to offer. These are common ingredients in questions of bioethics. Health science research is driven by many kinds of desires and is often coupled with a sense of urgency. Previously unimagined techniques seem to put distant hopes suddenly within reach.

Complexities arise

Grifo first conducted a series of experiments in mice. Once he had perfected the technique of nuclear transfer between eggs, he wanted to see if the eggs could produce viable off-spring. His team implanted the eggs in mice. It worked. Several litters of healthy baby mice were born.

The time felt right to try the technique in humans. Grifo and his team had become adept at the precise and fastidious technique of nuclear transfer, and his patient, having waited while the technique was developed and perfected, was getting older. The team tried the experiment in five patients, including the woman who had funded the research.

It failed. "The eggs made with nuclear transfer fertilized and made embryos, but no one got pregnant," Grifo explained. The eggs, it seemed, were too immature.

At New York University, Grifo is the director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology the director of the Fertility Center Program, and a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. His line of work meets a real demand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 7.4 million U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 44, or roughly 12% of this demographic group, have sought treatment or services for infertility. Behind these statistics are individuals and families struggling with difficult news and asking about what new treatments might become available. Although most women lack the wealth and willingness to go to such extreme lengths as Grifo's patient did, infertility evokes deep human emotions, desires, and hopes. It also brings out deep fears.

So do some new scientific procedures, especially when they relate to creating, sustaining, or ending human life. And here bioethics gets complicated. Here, profound individual experiences of hope., desire, and fear meet with disparate societal hopes and fears, ethical questions, and a fair measure of the unknown.

To many people, bioethics sounds like an abstract idea, something official panels and committees discuss. But bioethical problems start with a story, or usually many stories, often about people having hope despite long odds. Hope to overcome a disease, to conceive, to heal from an injury. And when that story has conflict, as all good stories do, the conflict often comes in the form of fear fear of the unknown, fear of cultural change, fear of technology, fear of ethical or moral slippery slopes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Grifo and his team ran headfirst into that fear. …

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Global Bioethics Hopes, Fears, and New Voices: As Science Increasingly Crosses Borders, So Do the Implications of Deeply Personal Health Sciences. Can New Voices Help in Bioethical Dialogue?
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