The Blog

Anything Goes

The International Society for Stem Cell Research issues it's "ethical guidelines."

11:00 PM, Feb 13, 2007 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) recently announced its "Guidelines for the Conduct of Embryonic Stem Cell Research." The results are not encouraging.

The Guidelines claim to "emphasize the responsibility of scientists to ensure that human stem cell research is carried out according to rigorous standard of research ethics." But saying it doesn't make it so. What the document actually does is paste a veneer of ethical analysis on top of the "anything goes" mentality that suffuses biotechnology and mainstream bioethics today.

Of course, what is deemed "ethical" in biotechnology depends in large part on, to borrow a phrase from President Bush, the deciders. Unsurprisingly, many of the members of the ISSCR "International Human Embryonic Research Guidelines Task Force," who wrote the Guidelines, are well known for advocating that scientists be given an open field.

University of Wisconsin bioethics professor R. Alta Charo, for example, has stated that a legal ban on all human cloning would violate scientists' First Amendment right to conduct research. Another task force bioethicist, Northwestern University's Laurie Zoloth, previously advocated applying what she considers a "Jewish" understanding of the moral status of human embryos to guide the ethics of stem-cell research--which is to say, she would give embryos no moral status at all when outside the womb, and treat them "as if they are simply water" for the first 40 days of gestation.

Stanford University stem cell biologist Irving Weissman, another task force member, made headlines in 2005 when he reportedly announced plans to create a mouse with a human brain. Then there is Ian Wilmut, who supervised the cloning of Dolly the sheep, and who supports reproductive cloning at least for people who can't otherwise bear genetically related offspring. He also recently suggested tossing aside the usual rules that govern human medical experimentation in order to allow dying patients to be injected with embryonic stem cells, even though they are currently unsafe for human use.

So, how far do the ISSCR Guidelines want to allow embryonic stem cell researchers to go? A lo-o-o-ong way. Remember when embryonic stem cell activists assured the nation that all they wanted to do was conduct experiments with leftover IVF embryos that were going to be destroyed anyway? Not anymore. The "rigorous" ISSCR research guidelines explicitly endorse the creation of new human embryos--both through IVF fertilization and somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning--for use and destruction in stem-cell research.

As with most bioethical documents of this kind, much emphasis is given to self regulation. Accordingly, the task force suggests that research be regulated by "institutional review." These may not be rubber stamp committees, but you can bet that the boards will also not be heterogeneous in bioethical outlook: No stem cell skeptics need apply.

The guidelines also permit the buying of human eggs for use in cloning and other biotechnological research--potentially putting the health and fecundity of poor women at material risk. Human egg procurement is an onerous procedure that requires a donor to be injected with high doses of hormones to hyper-stimulate her ovaries so that they release 10 to 20 (or more) eggs in a cycle, instead of one. The oocytes are then extracted through the vaginal wall. Side effects can include sterility, high fever, infection, pain, and in a few cases, even death.

But have no fear: The Guidelines suggest that the institutional overseers monitor "recruitment practices to ensure that no vulnerable populations, for example, economically disadvantaged women, are disproportionately encouraged to participate as oocyte providers for research" and that "financial considerations of any kind do not constitute undue inducement." Sure. How many wealthy women will willingly donate eggs, given the potential side effects and discomfort? And what, exactly, constitutes "undue" inducement?

Is there anything that the Guidelines suggest not be done? Sort of. Animal/human chimeras "with the potential to form gametes [sperm and eggs] are not to be bred to each other." Also, research embryos are not to be maintained for more than 14 days. But that isn't saying very much since after that, maintaining the embryos would require implantation into women's uteruses. Moreover, it isn't clear how long this "limitation" would last--particularly if artificial wombs are developed that would permit technological gestation for a few months in laboratory settings. And it is worth noting in this regard, that the Guidelines explicitly state that they are "incomplete," because they omit any discussion of harvesting "various types of fetal cells." The ISSCR Task Force is still considering that issue.

There is also the usual discouragement of reproductive cloning. However, the Guidelines do not claim that creating a cloned human embryo for gestation and birth is morally wrong. Rather, they provide a strictly utilitarian analysis: "Given current scientific and medical safety concerns, attempts at human reproductive cloning should be prohibited." Of course, today's safety concerns may be overcome tomorrow. Indeed, the very research that the Guidelines encourage--e.g. creating cloned and natural embryos for experimentation--could provide information about early gene expression needed to eventually make reproductive cloning "safe."

None of this should shock us. The ISSCR Guidelines merely reflect the already existing ethos in the field. Indeed, it is striking the extent to which the ISSCR paper mimics a similar set of guidelines issued in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which gave the prestigious scientific organization's imprimatur to the creation of embryos for use and destruction in research.

I wrote about the NAS guidelines at the time and what I asserted then applies just as well to the ISSCR paper:

Most of what can be done today, the NAS [and ISSCR] recommends be permitted today, while that which can't be done, the NAS [and ISSCR] agrees to prohibit 'at this time.' But these guidelines are intended to be ephemeral. When today's permitted research expands the capacities of the biotechnological enterprise tomorrow, we can expect the NAS's [and ISSCR] suggested "ethical guidelines" to "mature." Thus through a cynical process of policy creep the NAS [and ISSCR]intends to take us down that long and winding road that leads from embryonic stem cell research, to human cloning, to whatever human biotechnological research scientists decide they want to do next.

Or, to quote Cole Porter: Anything goes.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His website is wesleyjsmith.com.