Bioethicists Fiddle as Patients Die


Imagine what it’s like to open the newspaper (as I did Friday morning) and read that scientists in South Korea have made a huge breakthrough toward curing a disease that is slowly wrecking your life. But your own government is trying to prevent that cure.

Other nations are racing for the leadership role in stem cell research that the United States has abandoned. And states such as California are defying the federal near-ban. So it seems unlikely that U.S. government policy will actually prevent a cure for my Parkinson’s and other diseases. Still, it’s not too likely that a cure will come in time for most current sufferers in any event. But it might, it might. So when my government slows the process, it is disheartening.

The South Korean scientists apparently have developed a reliable method for producing an embryo by cloning genetic material from an adult human being. The theory is that stem cells extracted from a clone of yourself are likely to be safer and more effective than cells from leftover embryos in fertility clinics or from animal embryos or from adult bone marrow.


Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, greeted this thrilling news with his usual fatuous call for a “moratorium” on the research that produced it, while we think through the morality and all that. Kass seems to imagine bioethics researchers beavering away toward a moral breakthrough even as scientists beaver away at a medical one. All he asks is for the scientists to take a break and let the bioethicists catch up.

But no crash research program is going to produce some dazzling bioethical principle we never thought of before. We know all that we’re going to know about the moral issues, and we just have to decide. There are three issues: First, do the embryos used for stem cell research and therapy have rights? They are clumps of a few dozen cells, biologically more primitive than a mosquito. They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been. Nature itself creates and destroys millions of these every year. No one objects. No one mourns. In most cases no one even knows. If my life is worth no more than the survival of one of these clumps, then it is terribly unfair that I can plead my case on the Op-Ed page and they can’t. But I have no trouble feeling that the government should value my life more than the lives of these clumps. God may disagree. But the government reports to me and to other adult Americans, not to God.

Second, is human cloning such a horrific concept that it crosses a line into the territory of Frankenstein and “Brave New World”? Well, they said the same thing 27 years ago about in vitro fertilization, and that is now uncontroversial. It has brought joy to millions. And it is politically unassailable, even though the in vitro process produces and destroys far more “surplus” embryos than will ever be needed for stem cell therapy. The arguments against therapeutic cloning (cloning for medical purposes) tend to be abstract and poetic, concerned with the nature of humanity and stuff. But on the subject of stem cells, I am not in the mood for poetry.

Third, there’s the slippery slope. If we’re willing to destroy microscopic embryos for their stem cells, why will we stop before harvesting body parts from advanced fetuses, or breeding babies for their organs? Once we allow human cloning for embryos, how can we be sure no one will bring a cloned embryo to term and produce an actual cloned human being?

The answer is that we can’t. But slippery-slope arguments could have stopped every technological advance since the wheel. Scientists look for solutions. Although there are no guarantees, when you put more scientists onto a problem, you increase your chance of solving it. By contrast, professional ethicists tend to look for problems. When you put more ethicists onto a problem, you can end up with more problems. Cad that I am, for example, it never occurred to me to worry that cloning embryos for stem cells “exploits women as egg donors not for their benefit.” But it occurred to Kass, as quoted in Friday’s New York Times.

If the secretary of bioethics is worried that evil scientists might strap women down and extract eggs from them against their will, I agree with him that this would be a bad approach. But there may be alternatives. Women give up eggs as part of high-tech methods for getting pregnant, and some of these go unused. I guess it’s not cricket to use a woman’s unwanted eggs to cure dreadful diseases without her permission. But if this is what alarms Kass, the solution is a simple release form. Or does Kass think that using someone’s eggs to cure someone else’s disease is unethical with or without her permission? Or is he ineptly trying to get feminists on his side? Or just emptying his entire spice drawer into the stew? Or simply thinking too hard?


It’s amusing in a way to think of scientific breakthroughs sitting on hold while someone noodles his way through arcane ethical mazes of his own devising. Or it would be amusing if it weren’t my money. And my time.