IF THERE WERE EVER any doubts that the National Academy of Sciences is pursuing an "anything" goes approach to biotechnological research, they were erased by the organization's recently published tome, Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. The purported purpose of Guidelines is to create voluntary ethical protocols to govern human embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning research-- "to assure the public that such research is being conducted in an ethical manner." Setting aside for the moment whether human cloning and embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) can ever be ethical--a matter that remains heatedly controversial--the NAS Guidelines clearly don't deliver the goods.
Remember when, in 2001, proponents of federally funded embryonic stem cell research repeatedly told us that all they wanted was access to embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization treatments (IVF) that were due to be destroyed anyway? Remember when ESCR advocates repeatedly asserted that they would never countenance the making of human embryos solely for use in research? These warm assurances were intended to convince a wary public that scientists deeply respected human life in all its stages and to soothingly assure us that biotechnologists would limit their investigations to embryos that were already doomed.
Many of us suspected that restricting scientists to leftover IVF embryos was a temporary measure, a cynical political tactic intended to push the proverbial camel's nose of unlimited human biotechnological research under the flap of the public opinion tent. And that is exactly the way things have turned out. With most polls now friendly to ESCR, Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research completely drops the leftover-IVF-embryos-only pretense. Indeed, in a major expansion of policy that was either ignored or dramatically downplayed in media reports and editorials about the guidelines, the NAS explicitly opens the door to using embryos "made specifically for research" both through fertilization and nuclear transfer cloning.
This is big news: The most respected science organization in the country is now formally on record as supporting the creation of new human lives explicitly as harvestable and, perhaps, patentable commodities.
True, the Guidelines suggest that institutions engaging in ESCR and therapeutic cloning should establish self-regulating review boards to "oversee this emerging field of research." But that protection is much less than meets the eye. Membership on these boards would, by definition, be limited to boosters of ESCR and human therapeutic cloning, and would be chosen by the institutions conducting the research; biotech skeptics need not apply. Thus, rather than providing meaningful ethical constraints, the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committees likely would be more about providing public relations cover for controversial experiments.
So, what does Guidelines suggest prohibiting to ensure that research remains ethical? Actually, not very much:
First: Research involving "any intact human embryos, regardless of derivation method," in which they are maintained "for longer than 14 days." But this isn't saying anything meaningful. At present, embryos can only be cultured in a Petri dish for about 10 days. So nothing would be prohibited by this restriction that can presently be performed. Moreover, the guidelines are silent about implanting embryos in real or artificial wombs for research purposes--as opposed to birth--an act already legal in the state of New Jersey thanks to a statute that permits human cloning, implantation, and gestation through the ninth month. (Tellingly, the NAS did not oppose the New Jersey legislation.)
Second: Introducing human embryonic stem cells into primate embryos or "any embryonic stem cells" into human embryos. This is useful since the idea is to prevent primates from being born that could develop human traits. In addition, preventing animal or human ES cells from being introduced into human embryos would prevent the creation of chimera human embryos partially consisting of animal or foreign human DNA.
Third: Animals, in which human ES cells have been introduced "at any stage of development," should not be allowed to breed.
These limitations--as scant as they are--would only be applicable "at this time," and thus would appear to be elastic, that is, subject to future liberalization.
What about reproductive cloning? The Guidelines merely refer to the NAS's 2002 book, Scientific and Medical Aspects of Reproductive Cloning, which opined that bringing a cloned baby into the world "is not now appropriate"--the key word clearly being "now." In this regard, it is important to note that the NAS's opposition to reproductive cloning is not morally founded, but primarily based upon safety concerns. Indeed, Scientific and Medical Aspects suggested that the proposed reproductive cloning ban be "reviewed within five years"--a mere two years from now. In the meantime, cloning for research--which the NAS encourages--may be used to refine the cloning process to the point where the "safety" concern can ultimately be declared obsolete.
The NAS's position on human cloning and embryonic stem cell research can best be described as "anything goes in slow motion." Most of what can be done today, the NAS recommends be permitted today, while that which can't be done, the NAS 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 suggested "ethical guidelines" to "mature." Thus through a cynical process of policy creep the NAS 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.
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.