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American Academies of Science Announce Proposed Stem-Cell Research Guidelines

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Nathaniel Nelson

On April 26, 2005, the National Academies of Science (NAS), released a 142-page report (Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, available on line at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11278.html?onpi_newsdoc04262005) in which the Academies proposed a set of regulations intended to guide research involving human embryonic stem cells, and to “assure the public that stem-cell research is being carried out in an ethical manner” (Guidelines for Human Embryonic..., 2005, p. 2). The National Academies consist of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council, each of which is a private, non-profit institution that provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the nation under a congressional charter. The NAS is a well-known, highly respected community of advisors. Although guidelines and/or rules established by the NAS are not mandatory, they generally are employed by the majority of public research institutions (like universities), and frequently are even used in private research as well. Sadly, in this case, the rules set down by the NAS are largely insufficient in dealing with the ethical stipulations of embryonic stem-cell research.

Over the past few years, debates on the use of embryonic stem cells have been both frequent and heated. Is an embryo a living human being? If so, what moral/ethical implications does the use of embryonic stem cells have in medical procedures? What can (or should) be done about the proliferation of various experimental procedures that employ human embryonic stem cells, and that might be viewed as potentially unethical? These types of questions have been overshadowed by the belief that stem cells could possibly alleviate some of today’s most problematic diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and a number of others. Frequently, the destruction of embryonic stem cells has been viewed as a “moral necessity” that can be justified in order to accomplish what some see as a “higher purpose” (the saving of a life, the curing of a disease, etc.). That alleged higher purpose was mentioned briefly in the opening pages of the NAS proposal.

Some believe strongly that we should not turn away from the promise that embryonic stem cells will provide new therapeutic advances. Others believe that the derivation and application of human embryonic stem cells will undermine the dignity of human life. These disparate views are deeply and sincerely held, and must be considered as we move forward in advancing this research. Some of the qualms arise from unfamiliarity and the “shock of the new,” but others arise from concerns about the nature of human life, about ethical treatment of reproductive materials and about exploitation of donors of such materials. Those ethical concerns need to be balanced against the duty to provide the best medical care possible, enhancing the quality of life and alleviating suffering for many people. The challenge to our society is to achieve that balance (Guidelines for Human Embryonic..., p. vii, emp. added).

Notice what the NAS recognizes as a “challenge to our society”—achieving a balance between “enhancing the quality of life and alleviating suffering” versus “concerns about the nature of human life.” In other words, the real challenge lies in answering the question: “Are the tiny embryos—from whom the stem cells are derived—living humans that should be afforded the same sanctity of life as any other human?”

Medical ethicist Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Chicago (the biomedical ethicist who was selected by President George W. Bush on August 9, 2001 to head the President’s Council on Stem-Cell Research, and to serve as chairman of the President’s Council on Biomedical Ethics), once observed: “We Americans have lived by...the technological imperative—if it can be done, it must be done...” (2000, p. 105, emp. added). That assessment—if it can be done, it must be done—rules supreme in many areas of science. The famed Star Trek mantra—“to boldly go where no one has gone before”—has taken on an entirely new meaning in light of current technology.

But trying to abide by that technological imperative has presented its own set of problems. As long ago as 1967, in an editorial in Science, Marshall Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health cautioned:

Man may be able to program his own cells with synthetic information long before he will be able to assess adequately the long-term consequences of such alterations, long before he will be able to formulate goals, and long before he can resolve the ethical and moral problems which will be raised (as quoted in Walters and Palmer, 1997, p. 141).

There can be no doubt that the NAS report, which proposes guidelines for the use of human embryonic stem cells, is an attempt to “formulate goals” and “resolve the ethical and moral problems which will be raised” as medical procedures that employ those stem cells become more frequent.

Most researchers are desperate for such issues to be resolved as quickly as possible—and for good reason. In 2002, the President’s Council on Biomedical Ethics released its report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, which included research guidelines that classified embryos as “human subjects” (see Kass, 2002). In this report, the Council stated: “We hold that the case for treating the early-stage embryo as simply the moral equivalent of all other human cells is simply mistaken” (Kass, 2002, p. LIV, emp. added). Fearing this might happen, the battle cry for scientists was sounded in an article in the November 7, 2002 issue of Nature titled “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings” (Check, 2002). For the first time in United States history, scientists were facing a definition of human beings that could force them to rein in some of their embryonic experimentation. With embryos being classified as living humans, the possibility existed that those embryos no longer could be subjected to experiments (like those in stem-cell research) that resulted in their death.

Over thirty years ago, we wondered how many lives would be destroyed as a result of the then-new abortion legislation. Now, another door has been opened with embryonic research that has the potential to make the millions of children put to death via abortion pale into insignificance. With the current seemingly insatiable “push” for the use of human embryonic stem cells, it hardly seems likely that scientists will pause to consider the ethics of what they are doing, especially without rigid regulations firmly in place. Even those who favor human embryonic stem-cell research admit that such regulations are necessary. Chris Mooney, in a CBSNews.com article (“Ethics for Realists”) about the proposed NAS guidelines, wrote:

While I—and many others—would disagree with the notion that early embryos should enjoy all the same rights and protections as fully developed human beings, it’s hard to argue that they should lack any protections at all. It follows that before research can be ethically conducted involving human embryos, certain conditions should be met. These would include donor consent, limits on how long a research embryo can be allowed to develop before stem cells are extracted from it, and so forth (Mooney, 2005).

The NAS attempted to address those “conditions.” In fact, one of the main themes of the NAS guidelines involved time constraints regarding exactly when stem cells could be extracted from an embryo. The Academies’ report stated:

The following types of research should not be conducted at this time: (1) Research involving in vitro culture of any intact human embryo, regardless of derivation method, for longer than 14 days or until formation of the primitive streak begins, whichever occurs first (Guidelines for Human Embryonic ..., 2005, p. 82, emp. added).

Three years earlier, in the Report of the California Advisory Committee on Human Cloning, Irving Weissman, M.D. (director of the Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Stanford University), recognized the importance of this particular point in the embryo’s life, and used the formation of the primitive streak as a line of delineation between what he called a “pre-embryo” and an embryo. In discussing the procedures used to produce the embryos from which stem cells can be harvested, Weissman wrote:

Such a process would likely be used to create early pre-embryosto be used as sources of embryonic stem cells. As set out below, we would limit the use of such pre-embryosto the period before the appearance in the pre-embryoof the so-called primitive streak, which occurs 14 to 18 days after the pre-embryo’s creation. This developmental stage has also been termed the blastocyst or pre-embryo.... Various committees, in the United States and elsewhere, that have studied embryo research have concluded that the appearance of the primitive streak marks an important step in the moral status of the pre-embryo, and hence, the ethical arguments.... Before the appearance of the primitive streak, the pre-embryois not necessarily one individual—it could lead to identical twins (see Report of the California Advisory Committee ..., 2002).

In order to mine human embryonic stem cells, scientists find it necessary to somehow diminish the status of the embryo. Weissman and others have suggested that it be referred to as a “pre-embryo” (cf. Grobstein, 1979, where the term “pre-embryo” was first introduced into human embryology). The pre-embryo, in their estimation, has a “reduced moral status,” which thus allows for its destruction. Otherwise, it would have to be viewed as what Chris Mooney called a “fully developed human being”—and that would make such obviously unethical research increasingly difficult to defend or employ. [Do not overlook Dr. Weissman’s references in his comment to the “individual” and to “identical twins”—which are tell-tale signs of the humanity of the embryo. “Individuals” and “identical twins” are humans—and are derived from living human embryos.]

But does the formation of the primitive streak in an embryo represent some sort of “hypothetical magical divide” between the time when the embryo possesses a “reduced moral status” and the time when it possesses a “non-reduced moral status”? Why is it that this particular point in the life of a human embryo determines the time at which destroying the embryo would be considered murder? Mary Ellen Douglas of Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition stated:

The problem with these so-called “ethics” guidelines is that no one is watching the watchers. Who decides which ethics to use? Obviously it has already been decided that “standard” research ethics should be utilitarian in nature. How was this decided? By the ones who want to do the research (see “U.S. National Academies ...,” 2005).

Ms. Douglas is correct. Richard O. Hynes, spokesman for the NAS (and co-chairman, with Jonathan Moreno, of the committee that produced the proposed regulations), said that a standard set of guidelines for use by the entire research community “is the best way for this research to move forward” (see “U.S. National Academies...,” 2005). And the best (yea, the only!) way for the much-desired research to “move forward” (remember the technological imperative—“if it can be done, it must be done!”) is to find some time during the embryo’s development to declare it as having a “reduced moral status.” Thus, the formation of the primitive streak at roughly the 14-day period was arbitrarily chosen. The NAS report fails, however, to even consider the numerous (and frequently vociferous) objections of many within the research community who contend that therapeutic cloning and experimental research on human embryos is itself immoral because human life itself begins at conception. Interestingly, the Washington Post of May 11, 1975, contained an “Open Letter to the Supreme Court”—signed by 209 medical doctors—which stated: “We physicians reaffirm our dedication to the awesome splendor of human life—from one-celled infant to doddering elder.” Nothing about a child’s development has changed since 1975, but our nation’s moral standards certainly have.

The NAS report suggests that embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning should be deemed as ethical, as long as: (1) donors give consent for their eggs to be used in stem-cell research and receive no compensation; (2) embryonic stem cells from animals are not transplanted into human embryos; (3) human stem-cell transplants into animals are closely monitored, and any animals that receive human stem-cell transplants are not allowed to reproduce; (4) stem-cell transplants from humans to non-human primate embryos are banned; and (5) therapeutic cloning should be permitted only after an institutional review board has approved the eggs, sperm or embryos to be used.

Despite any good will infused into the NAS report, it still appears as if it is too little, too late. Overall, America has, for the most part, failed in stemming the tide of fundamentally immoral acts such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. Claudia Wallis, toward the end of a brief synopsis of the NAS guidelines in the May 2, 2005 issue of Time magazine, mentioned that “foes of the research, who object that embryos are destroyed to create stem-cell lines, called the document a futile effort to bring moral clarity to an immoral field” (2005). She could not have come closer to hitting the mark. The NAS guidelines do nothing to diminish the simple fact that human life is being destroyed, with little or no regard for personal dignity. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) stoutly opposed the NAS guidelines publicly when he said: “These so-called guidelines for destructive human embryonic stem-cell research try to put a good face on an unethical line of research. We should not be destroying human lives for the benefit of others” (as quoted in Weiss, 2005).

In the August 23, 2004 issue of Time magazine, staff writer Charles Krauthammer penned a piercing assessment of embryonic stem-cell research titled “Why Lines Must be Drawn” (which bore the subheading, “Stem Cells Present a Complex Moral Issue”). In his article, Krauthammer discussed some of the political shenanigans that have occurred in the stem-cell debate, and then commented:

...[T]his is not an issue of reason vs. ignorance..., but of recognizing two important competing human values: the thirst for knowledge and cures on the one hand and, on the other, the respect for even embryonic human life and a well-grounded respect for the proven human capacity to misuse newly acquired powers, in this case, the power to manipulate, reshape, dissect and redesign the developing human embryo (2004, 164[8]:78, emp. added).

Krauthammer expressed his discomfiture with the fact that so little respect is afforded to the human embryo. In speaking of his own offspring, he remarked:

I think it is more important to bequeath to my son a world that retains a moral compass, a world that when unleashing the most powerful human discovery since Alamogordo—something as protean, elemental, powerful and potentially dangerous as the manipulation and re-formation of the human embryo—recognizes that lines must be drawn and fences erected (p. 78, emp. added).

Krauthammer’s point—that “lines must be drawn and fences erected”—is right on target. He angrily decried the use of “embryos created purposely and wantonly for nothing but use by science.” We share his anger—as do millions of other Americans who have an innate respect for human life—from single-celled embryo to doddering elder. As those of us at Apologetics Press have repeatedly pointed out (see Human Cloning and Stem-Cell Research—Science’s “Slippery Slope” [Part II]), the destruction of human embryos for this type of research is a dangerous “slippery slope” that science dare not tread—even when there seems to be good reason to do so. Why? Because the wanton destruction of human life is wrong!

But who could possibly want a “magic bullet cure” for various human ailments more than Charles Krauthammer? When he was a mere 22 years old, he sustained a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He has not walked in more than 30 years!

Oh, and did we mention that it was Charles Krauthammer, M.D. who wrote this essay? Krauthammer is a well-known physician who knows exactly what he’s talking about—and who has a self-professed vested interest in finding cures for human beings who, like himself, desperately want to walk, or live, another day.

But, as Krauthammer noted—not by destroying other human beings! Or, as Dr. Krauthammer said when he ended his article, “not at any price” (p. 78). We could not agree more. Premeditatedly destroying one human being, on the slim off-chance of hoping to save another, is not an option. Adult stem cells, and stem cells collected from newborn infants’ umbilical cord blood, do not involve the destruction of human life. Yet far too often, scientists want to cross the line and argue for the use of embryonic stem cells. We always have maintained (and will continue to do so) that faithful Christians cannot ignore the sanctity of human life in the hope that embryonic stem cells will cure some dreaded disease. Two wrongs never make a right—an important point that those at the National Academies of Sciences seem to have overlooked. As Leon Kass put it: “The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do” (2000, p. 106, emp. added). While some within science will continue to press ever forward with their sacrosanct “technological imperative,” faithful Christians need to balance their lives, and occasionally be prepared to say “no” to medical advances that are ethically questionable at best, or wrong at worst. We need to demonstrate to the world that while we truly appreciate most medical advances, those advances, however promising they may seem to be, do not dictate in the realms of morals and ethics.

REFERENCES

Check, Erika (2002), “U.S. Biologists Wary of Move to View Embryos as Human Beings,” Nature, 420[108]:3-4, November 7.

Eccles, John C. and Daniel N. Robinson (1984), The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind (New York: The Free Press).

Grobstein, Clifford (1979), “External Human Fertilization,” Scientific American, 240:57-67.

Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (2005), [On-line], URL: http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11278.html?onpi_newsdoc04262005.

Kass, Leon (2000), “The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Humans,” Human Cloning Debate, ed. Glenn McGee (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills Books), pp. 68-106. [Article appeared originally in Leon R. Kass and James Q. Wilson (1998), The Ethics of Human Cloning (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press).]

Kass, Leon (2002), Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (New York: PublicAffairs, Ltd.).

Krauthammer, Charles (2004), “Why Lines Must be Drawn,” Time, 164[8]:78, August 23.

Mooney, Chris (2005), “Ethics for Realists,” CBSNews.com, [On-line], URL: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/05/02/opinion/printable692445.shtml.

Report of the California Advisory Committee on Human Cloning (January 11, 2002), Sacramento, CA, [On-line], URL: http://scbe.stanford.edu/conference/cloning_cali.pdf.

Wallis, Claudia (2005), “Ethics of a New Science,” [On-line], http://www.time.com/time/archive.printout/0,23657,1056315,00.html, May 2.

Walters, LeRoy and Julie G. Palmer (1997), The Ethics of Human Gene Therapy (New York: Oxford University Press).

Weiss, Rick (2005), “Stem-cell Scientists Get Guides” (2005), [On-line], URL: http://newsobserver.com/news/health_science/story/2350617p-8728476c.html.




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