Ethics For Realists

KEY WEST, July 5 - Dave Price poses with two of Key West's finest including Kurt Stephens, center, winner of this year's first "Great American Vacation" getaway contest.
This column was written by Chris Mooney.
You don't have to be anti-abortion to agree with the following statement: A human embryo has greater moral standing than a human skin cell. 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.

But the deep, dark secret of the embryonic-stem-cell debate is that, amid all the moralistic grandstanding, the question of standards for conducting research has been largely ignored. The entire stem-cell discussion has been focused on whether government should fund research in the first place, with little recognition that with government funding comes ethical oversight and research guidelines that might not otherwise exist.

Indeed, restrictions on government funding -- especially the heavy-handed restrictions implemented by President Bush -- inevitably trigger a race for funding from the private sector and elsewhere. Almost by definition, this means that researchers will be subjected to highly variable, inconsistent, or even nonexistent guidelines as they conduct research on entities that have the potential to develop into fully grown human beings.

So troubling is this situation that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has now independently stepped into the breach with a set of guidelines for human-embryo research. As the NAS' recent report notes, "The field is subject to a patchwork of regulations, many not designed with this research specifically in mind, and the patchwork has some gaps in its coverage." The NAS' guidelines do not indulge arguments to the effect that embryonic-stem-cell research -- including research on embryos created through cloning -- should be banned outright. Rather, presuming that such research will go forward, they outline a set of best practices: Women shouldn't be paid for their eggs; embryos shouldn't be cultured for more than 14 days after fertilization (the time when the so-called "primitive streak" appears); donors must voluntarily provide informed consent before their embryos are used for research, and, furthermore, must be told how those embryos will be used, as well as being informed that they will not reap financial benefits from the research; institutions should set up special oversight bodies (in addition to the standard institution review boards) to monitor this research and implement the standards. And much more.