Monday, September 12, 2011

Scientific Sense and the Sense of Propriety

A student who was doing a project on stem cell research emailed DNH a series of questions, one of which was “Is there any scientific reason to not continue with stem cell research?”

It seems like a reasonable question, given that stem cell research – or, more correctly, human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) --  is and remains very controversial.  The controversy arises over the ethics of destroying human embryos for research, which is the necessary basis of hESCR.  But, the questioner wanted to know, what about the science? Are there any scientific reasons for ending hESCR?

After some thought though, it becomes clear that the student’s question is based on a misguided assumption, but one that nonetheless has underlined much of the debate over the propriety of pursuing hESCR.  This assumption is that “science” is the ultimate arbiter of what “science” should or should not do.  Throughout the national debate on hESCR we frequently heard the argument that we should be “guided by the science” in determining whether the research should receive federal funding, and that those outside the scientific community had no business telling scientists what they could or could not do.  The ultimate logic of this assumption is that scientists should have the final say on what research projects to pursue, whatever – or in spite of— the ethical objections, however sound, other voices may raise.

Which brings us to a fascinating article in the August issue of Wired: “Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong).    

The title pretty much tells the story.  The article highlights seven proposed experiments that --  from a purely scientific perspective --  would benefit us and add to our store of knowledge, but would not (at least at present) be undertaken because of the ethical objections they raise. 

For example, one experiment calls for testing potentially toxic substances in human subjects, rather than in animals.  The benefits from such an experiment should be obvious – as should the ethical objections to it.   Another experiment calls for inserting a “reporter” gene into an embryo in order to directly observe the process of how genes turn on and off and guide the development of the embryo from just a few cells into a fully differentiated human.  “If ethics weren’t an issue” the author notes, the knowledge gained from such an experiment could provide a real boost to the field of regenerative medicine.  Yet another experiment proposes to breed a human-chimpanzee hybrid.  The experiment could help answer many questions surrounding evolution and the origins of humans.  The late biologist Steven Jay Gould called such a proposal “the most potentially interesting and ethically unacceptable experiment I can imagine.”

All of these proposed experiments are as scientifically sound as they are ethically unsound.  All of them, from a purely scientific perspective, make sense, are designed to be carried out as efficiently and effectively as possible, and would add to our store of knowledge and even result in tangible benefits such as preventing and treating disease. 

So, if we were guided first and foremost by science, we would be doing these experiments.  But because of the ethics, we do not.  In other words, while science may be competent to tell us what we are able to do, and the most efficient way to do it, it is not within the competence of science to tell us what we should or should not do.  That judgment must come from outside of science. 

The same is true for human embryonic stem cell research.  Which is why the argument that we should let the “science” determine whether or not to pursue hESCR is so misleading and disingenuous.  As the examples from Wired show, science can make no such determination; it can only come from disciplines outside of science.

During one of the many Congressional hearings on stem cell research, Dr. Stuart Newman, a professor at New York Medical College, laid out the following scenario: in addition to human embryonic stem cells there is another class of pluripotent stem cells called human embryonic germ cells (n.b., Dr. Newman’s testimony [3/5/02] was given before the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells [iPSCs]).  “On purely scientific grounds,” Newman noted, “embryo germ cells show even greater promise than embryo stem cells.”  However, while embryonic stem cells are typically harvested no later than seven days after conception, embryonic germ cells are derived from eight to nine week embryos.  

Deriving cells from such later term embryos would now be a “hot potato” Newman noted, but not for any scientific reason: “I emphasize that all of this makes perfectly good scientific and medical sense. The only thing that stands in the way is the sense of propriety concerning the uses to which developing human embryos and fetuses may be put. Some of you may draw the line at the tiny clump of cells, others at the two-month embryo, still others somewhat short of full term. Wherever each of you decides to leave this particular train, there will be others who will insert their right to take it to the next station” (please note, Dr. Newman favors abortion rights and noted at the outset of his testimony that his views “do not derive from any notion of the sanctity of the embryo”).

All of this makes perfectly good scientific and medical sense.” In the context of hESCR, letting science lead the way leads to the commodification of human life.  It turns human life – and the human embryo is human life – into a commodity to be exploited as a means to what someone else deems a worthy end.  And worthy has now come to include something as mundane as desiring smoother skin, as some cosmetic companies now boast the use of fetal cells in their preparations).     

If we used the same standard proponents used to justify hESCR – let “science” have the final say – there would be no reason to judge as “creepy” the experiments described in Wired.   But they are, as is destroying and exploiting human life as a means to someone else’s potential benefit.      

Add hESCR as the eighth experiment on Wired’s list.

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