Ethics for Realists

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.

Such guidelines would have been useful earlier; after all, the first embryonic stem cells were extracted from human embryos back in 1998. Nevertheless, the NAS' move is timely: As states like California and Massachusetts move into the stem-cell arena, seeking to compensate for the lack of federal leadership, the regulatory crazy quilt seems bound to grow even crazier. If the NAS guidelines are widely and voluntarily adopted, they could impose at least a modicum of consistency in a field where the federal government has all but forsaken its traditional role.

Other countries -- less beset by the curious notion that "ethics" demand banning the government funding of embryo research while leaving it unregulated in the private sector -- have already adopted a far saner approach. For instance, at a conference at Rice University late last year, I heard a talk by Suzi Leather, head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the United Kingdom. Leather explained that the British government "very actively" backs research involving human embryos, but also tightly regulates it. The regulatory system for such research in the country is more than 13 years old, with the HFEA having been launched in 1991. And the regulations are tough: All research has to be approved on a case-by-case basis, and those wishing to conduct such research further have to prove it's medically necessary. Embryos older than 14 days can't be used, and genetic engineering of human embryos is strictly forbidden.

As Leather went on to note, the result of such regulation in the United Kingdom has been public confidence; 70 percent of the British population supports the use of embryos in medical research, she said. And this in a nation where the citizenry is, in some ways, far more suspicious than our own about certain forms of scientific research and its results (particularly work involving genetically modified foods and organisms).

The politics of conservative religiosity in the United States have more or less ruled out a British-style solution to the embryo-research dilemma. Nevertheless, the move by the NAS is heartening. In the stem-cell debate -- and particularly when the subject of cloned embryo research arises -- American scientists have all too often been depicted as unrestrained Frankensteins seeking to undermine the very essence of humanity in pursuit of forsaken knowledge. The reality is much different. In the absence of government action, these scientists have now taken the initiative to offer a set of ethical guidelines for research -- guidelines, it should be added, that religious conservatives rarely bothered to emphasize, being far too busy trying to have the work banned outright.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at