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Anything Goes

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

11:00 PM, Feb 13, 2007 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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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