The Ethicist's New Clothes

How you look at things.
Aug. 17 2001 3:00 AM

The Ethicist's New Clothes

(Continued from Page 1)

The breadth of ACT's "ethical guidelines" conceals the thin logic of this lonely premise on which they stand. Essentially, the argument is that since the early embryo could become one body or two bodies, maybe it's nobody.

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Unless you buy that argument, there's no apparent reason to draw the line at gastrulation rather than at conception (or its counterpart in the cloning process, nuclear transfer), the onset of the heartbeat, the onset of brain waves, or fetal viability. If the choice among these lines comes down to which one is most clearly drawn by nature, conception wins hands down. So ACT overrides nature. It erects a barrier of surveillance cameras, bodyguards, and disposal deadlines—a "properly monitored environment"—to make gastrulation a clearer line in industry than it is in nature. The company prevents pre-gastrulation embryos from becoming post-gastrulation embryos the same way it prevents therapeutic clones from becoming reproductive clones: by segregating and killing them.

In this way, ACT, like Jones, defines the embryo's value by its custodian's intent. Inside the lab, the company locks up, grows, experiments on, and destroys human entities it calls "activated eggs," "ovasomes," or "nuclear transfer-derived blastocysts." According to Green, "These are not embryos" since "they are not the result of fertilization and there is no intent to implant these in women and grow them." Outside the lab, the company scrupulously avoids soliciting eggs from women who might otherwise donate them to fertility clinics. The inside rules, like the outside rules, are designed to protect the world in which embryos matter from being contaminated by the world in which they don't.

Is this ethic of segregation itself ethical? ACT's advisory board didn't even debate that question. "We didn't spend an enormous amount of time" discussing the morality of embryonic cloning, Green told the Wall Street Journal. "We wouldn't have been [on the board] unless we thought that the research had important benefits." The board confined itself to procedural questions such as how eggs should be obtained and how the doomed embryos should be quarantined. Nor has the board scrutinized other ACT projects. In 1996, the company briefly grew a hybrid embryo by implanting a human cell nucleus in a cow egg. ACT filed patents in 1999 and 2000 on a proposal to grow human tissues inside mice, but West didn't mention this to the ethics board until last month, and then only vaguely. When one ethicist quit after learning that ACT had cloned an endangered species without informing the board, Green defended the company. The board's job, he asserted, was to evaluate the human cloning project, not ACT's other experiments.

Ethicists outside the industry complain that those who advise ACT and other biotechnology companies are unlicensed, unrepresentative, anonymous, and possibly corrupted by the fees they receive. They miss the point. Or rather, they illustrate it. The ethical rules these outsiders would impose on private ethics boards—licensing, diversity, accountability, financial independence—are just as procedural and hollow as the stem-cell ethics those boards have devised. The problem isn't corruption. It's timidity. Corporate ethicists, like corporate lawyers, have reduced their purview to technique. Tell them what you want to do, and they'll tell you how to do it. What they won't do is question the essential propriety of your enterprise.

Fine. They don't have to. But somebody should. The rest of us have to stop relying on ethicists to define ethics. We have to ask whether their questions are broad enough and whether their answers make sense. In his speech to the nation last week, President Bush said it was moral for the government to fund research on stem cells derived from embryos that had been destroyed for that purpose. Rather than explain why, the president said he had consulted ethicists and would appoint a panel of them to study the issue further. Bush didn't even hint at his logic until three days later. "The only licensed live chickenpox vaccine used in the United States was developed, in part, from cells derived from research involving human embryos," he observed in a Times op-ed. "Many ethical and religious leaders agree that even if the history of this vaccine raises ethical questions, its current use does not."

That's it. That's all the president felt obliged to say: Ethicists and clerics had assured him that in a similar case, making good use of destroyed embryos didn't even "raise ethical questions." What principles justified that conclusion? Would those principles extend to stem cells, and if so, where would they stop? What other considerations might be relevant? Bush didn't answer. Trust the ethicists, he said. Which ethicists? Bush has his; ACT and Jones have theirs. President Clinton's bioethics council says one thing; Bush's will say another. Résumés, commissions, and regulations can't settle these disputes. Nor can ethicists. It's not their job. It's yours.