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 taw 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. This is true whether or not researchers participate in the derivation of embryonic stem cells. As long as embryos are destroyed as part of the research enterprise, researchers using embryonic stem cells (and those who fund them) will be complicit in the death of embryos. If the flawed rationales of HHS are accepted, federally-funded researchers may soon be able to experiment on stem cells obtained by destroying embryonic human beings, so long as the act of destruction does not itself receive federal funds. However, the very language of the existing ban prohibits the use of federal funds to support "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death...." (Sec. 511(a)(2)). Obviously, Congress' intent here was not to merely prohibit the use of federal funds for embryo destruction, but to prohibit the use of such funds for research dependent in any way upon such destruction. Therefore, the opinion of HHS that human embryonic stem cell research may receive federal funding clearly violates both the language and intention behind the existing law. Congress and the courts should ensure that the law is properly interpreted and enforced to ban federal funding for research which harms, destroys, or is dependent upon the destruction of human embryos.

It is important to recognize also that research involving human embryos outside the womb--such as embryos produced in the laboratory by in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning--has never received federal funding. Initially, this was because a federal regulation of 1975 prevented government funding of IVF experiments unless such experiments were deemed acceptable by an Ethics Advisory Board. Following the failure of the first advisory board to reach a consensus on the matter, no Administration chose to appoint a new board. After this regulation was rescinded by Congress in 1993, a Human Embryo Research Panel recommended to the National Institutes of Health that certain kinds of harmful nontherapeutic experiments using human embryos receive federal funding. However, these recommendations were rejected in part by President Clinton and then rejected in their entirety by Congress.

Further, it is instructive to note that the existing law which permits researchers to use fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions requires that the abortions are performed for reasons which are entirely unrelated to the research objectives. This law thus prohibits HHS from promoting the destruction of human life in the name of medical progress, yet medical progress is precisely the motivation and justification offered for the destruction of human life that occurs when stem cells are obtained from human embryos.

Current law against funding research in which human embryos are harmed and destroyed reflects well-established national and international legal and ethical norms against misusing any human being for research purposes. Since 1975, those norms have been applied to unborn children at every stage of development in the womb, and since 1995 they have been applied to the human embryo outside the womb as well. The existing law on human embryonic research is a reflection of universally accepted principles governing experiments on human subjects--principles reflected as well in the Nuremberg Code, the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and many other statements. Accordingly, members of the human species who cannot give informed consent for research should not be the subjects of an experiment unless they personally may benefit from it or the experiment carries no significant risk of harming them. Only by upholding such research principles do we prevent treating people as things--as mere means to obtaining knowledge or benefits for others.

It may strike some as surprising that legal protection of embryonic human beings can co-exist with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 legalization of abortion. However, the Supreme Court has never prevented the government from protecting prenatal life outside the abortion context, and public sentiment also seems even more opposed to government funding of embryo experimentation than to the funding of abortion. The laws of a number of states--including Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah--specifically protect embryonic human beings outside: the womb. Most of these provisions prohibit experiments on embryos outside the womb. We believe that the above legally acknowledged protections against assaults on human dignity must be extended to all human beings--irrespective of gender, race, religion, health, disability, or age. Consequently, the human embryo must not be subject to willful destruction even if the stated motivation is to help others. Therefore, on existing legal grounds alone, research using stem cells derived from the destruction of early human embryos is proscribed.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research is Unethical

The HHS decision and the recommendations of NBAC to federally fund research involving the destruction of human embryos would be profoundly disturbing even if this research could result in great scientific and medical gain. The prospect of government-sponsored experiments to manipulate and destroy human embryos should make us all lie awake at night. That some individuals would be destroyed in the name of medical science constitutes a threat to us all. Recent statements such as "stem cell research is too promising to be slowed, impeded, or stopped" underscore the sort of utopianism and hubris that could blind us to the truth of what we are doing and the harm we could cause to ourselves and others. Human embryos are not mere biological tissues or...

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