Will science solve an ethical problem it helped create?

November 20, 2007

Cloning specialist Prof. Ian Wilmut, 2005The Daily Telegraph had a fascinating scoop over the weekend — Professor Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, has abandoned the therapeutic cloning method for a new way to create stem cells without an embryo. In classic Fleet Street style, the London daily announced in the second paragraph that the decision “will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.” It took another 16 paras to get to other constituencies for this story, who are mentioned in passing in the line that “there is an intense search for alternatives because of pressure from the pro-life lobby, the opposition of President George W Bush and ever present concerns about cloning babies.

That doesn’t take away from their scoop in any way — it is primarily a science story, written by their science editor Roger Highfield, and it’s a good one. But this second angle is of enormous importance to many readers out there who have moral scruples about embryonic stem cell research.

Dolly the cloned sheep, 2002I was intrigued by a line high up saying: “Most of his motivation is practical but he admits the Japanese approach is also “easier to accept socially.” If I read that correctly, it means that science — which helped create this moral dilemma by developing the embryonic stem cell technique — may solve it eventually with another breakthrough that looks equally (or more) interesting to the scientist. That could take care of this issue, but others are bound to pop up that cannot be solved with a technical fix. Wilmot discusses this on a linked page publishing an extract from a book that he and Highfield wrote called After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning. He believes an embryo cannot be considered a person until it is about 14 days old because it has no nervous system. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, counts personhood from the moment of conception, since it considers the potential in the embryo just as important as the cells that are already there. It’s hard to see how a technical breakthrough can bridge that gap.

After DollyScience writers like Highfield can explain the details of the procedure far better than I, so please look their way (here’s a quick Google News search) for more. What interests me is the impact this may have on opponents of embryonic stem cell research. Will they embrace this as the moral alternative, or oppose this as well as “playing God”? Would those who say they want the often-mentioned benefits of stem cell research but oppose public funds for the embryonic type on moral grounds now campaign to have this new method bankrolled with taxpayers’ money?

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It’s true that the most far-reaching impact of this development could be the impact on U.S. politics. It really takes the stem-cell debate into a new, potentially more logical space.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive