The Ethicist's New Clothes
As the debate over stem cells and cloning grows, participants on all sides are rushing to show they've got ethics. Biotechnology companies have signed up ethicists to serve on advisory boards. President Bush says he'll appoint a Presidential Council on Bioethics. Critics of the biotech industry have enlisted independent ethicists to accuse the industry's ethicists of bias. All sides agree on one thing: The key to ethics is following guidelines drafted by qualified and unbiased ethicists.
Wrong. Credentials and committees don't make you ethical. Principles do. Those principles have to make sense. You have to apply them consistently or rethink them if you can't stomach their implications. And the easier you make them, the less they matter. The slickest way to make yourself look ethical is to narrow the definition of ethics so that it won't interfere with what you want to do. But that won't make you ethical. It'll just make you an ethicist.
To understand how ethicists create the illusion of ethics without the real thing, let's examine two case studies. Last month, researchers at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine disclosed that they had created embryos in order to harvest stem cells, thereby killing the embryos. In the journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, they reported that they had subjected the experiment to ethical reviews by four committees. Their diligence was applauded. "I am impressed with the thoughtful approach taken with the ethical issues involved," said the co-chairman of the ASRM's ethics panel.
What exactly was this thoughtful approach? In a long-winded
Within its parameters, this rationale makes sense. The problem is those parameters. The only question addressed is whether the donors properly consented. The propriety of what they consented to is ignored. Hence the Jones team's bizarre pride in reporting that it had told donors that their embryos wouldn't be used to help anybody directly. "It was repeatedly stressed in all information, verbal and written, provided to gamete donors … that the embryos would not be used for the initiation of a pregnancy," the researchers wrote. "They were also informed that if any ESC [embryonic stem cell] lines were created, they would not be used for therapy in anyone."
The logical result of this preoccupation with the donors' will is that the embryo has no intrinsic value. If the donors intended to grow it into a baby, it should be grown into a baby. If they intended to kill it, it should be killed. That's one reason why the Jones team didn't use embryos from couples. "Soliciting eggs and sperm from donors who do not know each other and have no reproductive intent can ensure that there is no regret about using the embryo for research," explained University of Wisconsin ethicist Alta Charo. The Jones embryos were perfectly sterile, uncontaminated by erotic or parental love. If we don't want them, don't care about them, and don't think they're human, they aren't.
A day after the Jones study was disclosed, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology said they had launched a project to clone human embryos for research. The chairman of ACT's ethics board, Dartmouth religion professor Ronald Green, described to reporters the elaborate guidelines the board had imposed on the research. ''We've thought long and hard about this,'' ACT President Michael West assured the New York Times. The message got through. "Before starting, the company created an independent ethics board with nationally recognized scientists and ethicists to develop a plan with clear moral standards," the Washington Post reported.
And what was that plan? Green refused to release the company's ethical guidelines. But according to a summary he provided to the Associated Press, eggs assigned to the project "are taken to a secure location and kept in this location at all times. Access to this location requires permission of two ACT technicians. The incubator where eggs are cultured is locked at all times. … Eggs are repeatedly counted, photographed and videotaped. … By day 13, following any research activities, activated oocyte [the egg] is properly disposed of and the experiment ended." The Post and Times noted the "extreme precautions" and "elaborate security measures" outlined by Green and West.
There's only one problem with these ethical rules. They're not ethical. They're mechanical. What's their purpose? To prevent embryos from being smuggled out and implanted in a womb, says Green. Why is that important? And why require disposal after 13 days? To answer those questions, you have to go back to the Dec. 27, 2000, Journal of the American Medical Association, in which West, Green, and other ACT ethicists outlined their thinking. Personhood, they argued, can't begin until two weeks into human development when embryonic cells, in a process called gastrulation, align to form layers that will eventually become organs.
[B]ecause twinning and chimerism [the merging of two embryos into one] are still possible during the early stages of development, it is doubtful that one can speak of human individuality at this time. Developmental individuality, which is central to personhood, is not attained until the primitive body axis has begun to form. … The line established by gastrulation and the appearance of the primitive streak is a clear one, as is the line between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. It is unlikely that researchers working in properly monitored environments will blur these distinctions.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.