Debate about the ethics and legal aspects of stem cell research can feel just as complicated as the science.
I grew up in the turbulent 1960s and became interested in the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate taking place, as people argued whether human behavior is the product of inherited traits or our environment. I found both sides fascinating -- the nature side led me to study biology, and the nurture side got me interested in public policy.
In various roles throughout my career, I dealt with a number of reproductive rights issues, including serving on President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission, and I teach ethics in the law school at UW-Madison.
So, when UW-Madison researcher Jamie Thomson called me in to see his work with primates and began discussing his interest in moving to human embryonic research in a way that was ethical as well as legal, everything I had done became quite relevant.
How we address these issues can have huge implications for research. it didn't create a new body of legal study, but it did require interpretation of existing law in ways that were politically fraught.
The government was barred from funding research involving human embryos. Thomson’s work on campus could, in theory, have jeopardized a whole range of federally supported projects.
Then he developed lines of stem cells which, though derived from embryos, were no longer actual embryos. This was a really tricky question, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined the two were distinct. It angered a lot of people, but it was enough to allow research to go forward.
You couldn’t always predict where people would land on the ethics of stem cell research or assume that any one group would be aligned.
Among women, for example, some worried about elite government types interfering with reproductive issues, while others support stem cell research because they wanted to defend their right to donate eggs.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have people like U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah and a Mormon, who argues embryos outside the body differ importantly from those inside. Scholars of Judaism take embryos very seriously, but not until 40 to 45 days of development.
Even here in Wisconsin, where stem cell research is now at the heart of a blossoming biotech region, we are seeing conservative members of business community supporting it from an economic standpoint.
There is no doubt that we are going to face ethical questions involving stem cells again and again. It’s complicated and takes a lot of patience, but it gives you a chance to help make science more manageable, and ultimately contribute to human well-being by facilitating scientific work.