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An argument that embryonic stem cells can provide numerous medical cures

An Interview with Jonathan Moreno Scientists largely agree that stem cells may hold a key to the treatment, and even cure, of many serious medical conditions. But while the use of adult stem cells is widely accepted, many religious groups and others oppose stem cell research involving the use and destruction of human embryos.

The Case Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Yuval Levin

At the same time, many scientists say that embryonic stem cell research is necessary to unlock the promise of stem cell therapies since embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the human body. In late 2007, researchers in the United States and Japan succeeded in reprogramming adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

The new development offers the possibility that the controversy over the use of embryos could end.

But many scientists and supporters of embryonic stem cell research caution that this advance has not eliminated the need for embryos, at least for the time being. Recently, the Pew Forum sat down with University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Moreno to discuss the ethical and moral grounds for supporting embryonic stem cell research.

  1. These people believe — and I think many of the bioconservatives fall in this category — that unless we ascribe a very high level of respect to the human embryo, biotechnology will take us down a very dark road, a kind of slippery slope or revival of eugenics.
  2. You dismissed the slippery slope argument.
  3. The Roman Catholic Church did not traditionally attribute personhood to the embryo, and this view only started to change in the middle of the 19th century. When this breakthrough was announced, some pundits and commentators said that it essentially ends the debate over whether to destroy embryos for stem cell research.

Previously, he was president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and served as a senior staff member for two presidential advisory committees. When this breakthrough was announced, some pundits and commentators said that it essentially ends the debate over whether to destroy embryos for stem cell research.

From the very beginning of this controversy, there has been a tendency for non-scientists to talk as though they were scientists. For another, there may be some biological limits to the utility of alternative sources, such as these skin cells. And, of course, the techniques now being used involve a genetic factor that is carcinogenic.

At this point it is still too early to tell exactly what this news means. There is some work about to be published suggesting that adult stem cells are less capable of being reprogrammed to become like embryonic stem cells if they come from older people, which would obviously greatly compromise their utility for therapeutic purposes for that donor.

I think all the evidence suggests that, for the foreseeable future, human embryonic stem cell lines will be needed to continue this research. Do you believe a human embryo has intrinsic worth? And if it does, what sort of rights should we accord it? First, it is important to note that not all Abrahamic religions universally agree with the notion that a human embryo has any moral status at all.

Orthodox Jews, imams in the Islamic tradition and many Protestant denominations do not equate the embryo with the moral status of a born human person. The Roman Catholic Church did not traditionally attribute personhood to the embryo, and this view only started to change in the middle of the 19th century. Even now there are many people who are pro-life who support human embryonic stem cell research.

So I think there is not, in fact, a neat division between people who are pro-life and pro-choice on this question, nor is there a neat division between people who ascribe a great deal of moral status and relatively little moral status to a human embryo.

  • But while the use of adult stem cells is widely accepted, many religious groups and others oppose stem cell research involving the use and destruction of human embryos;
  • I think that the embryonic stem cell debate is ultimately about the question of human equality;
  • Recently, the Pew Forum sat down with University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Moreno to discuss the ethical and moral grounds for supporting embryonic stem cell research;
  • Do you believe that they have the same intrinsic worth as a five-year-old child or a 50-year-old man?

There is a lot of variation here, which is one of the reasons the debate has been so complicated. It is not a bumper-sticker debate. In this country, at least, the consensus among people who think about these things, like theologians and philosophers, seems to be that the human embryo has a greater moral status than a sperm and egg alone, but the embryo does not necessarily have rights.

  • The new development offers the possibility that the controversy over the use of embryos could end;
  • The devil is in the details, but, on the whole, I think the next administration will change policy.

That being said, I would say that the embryo that is intentionally created has to be respected. This means that, for purposes of medical research, before one can justify the destruction of an embryo, one must give a sound argument that existing human embryonic stem cell lines are not adequate for this research purpose and demonstrate the importance of the research purpose — for example, something related to a serious disease.

Yes, there are people who attribute the absolute same moral status to an embryo as they would to you or me. These people believe — and I think many of the bioconservatives fall in this category — that unless we ascribe a very high level of respect to the human embryo, biotechnology will take us down a very dark road, a kind of slippery slope or revival of eugenics.

It seems to me that our empathy for people who suffer has become greater in the last 2,000 years rather than less, and that medical science is an expression of concern about suffering and an attempt, as the rabbis put it, to heal the world. You dismissed the slippery slope argument. But what if we get to the a point where genetic manipulation for therapeutic purposes reaches a level of sophistication where we can really begin to alter who we are as human beings?

I think we will. When we look at these questions, we have to be careful not to mystify the power of science by thinking that these discoveries will take us in the direction of our wildest imagination. If we do that, we really damage the opportunities that science gives us to expand our consciousness. There are people of faith on both sides of this debate. Do Judeo-Christian teachings inform your views on this issue?

But after five-plus thousand years of Judaism and a couple thousand years of Christianity, that tradition does not speak with a single voice. As for myself, there is one concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition that I find particularly important: Cruelty can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, including — in my view — a failure to take advantage of the opportunities for the human good that medical science can provide.

I think one has to be careful. You know, one country that is especially vigorous in the stem cell research field is Israel, which is, of course, the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity.

  • But given that there are concerns, the case for destroying embryos does become a lot weaker;
  • The same is true today for stem cell research;
  • So in other words, even though you would grieve the death of a 50-year-old man more than a five-day-old embryo, on at least the most basic level you believe that they both have the same right to life.

So I would be reluctant to generalize based on geography. Today, a slim majority supports it. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research often say this support indicates a public that is misinformed about the research and its potential benefits.

In particular, they criticize celebrities, politicians and others who claim that stem cell research will soon cure many of the most dreaded diseases. Is that criticism fair? John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, gave a very vigorous speech at the beginning of his term of office advocating vast internal improvements including not only canals and roads but also scientific improvements. I think having the states take the lead is a good thing in the short term.

Without greater federal involvement, there will be a huge coordination problem. Ironically, it was that coordination problem that led the federal government to build canals and roads because the big states insisted that they needed them, and the federal government was in the best position to coordinate these projects. The same is true today for stem cell research.

Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, do you anticipate the federal government becoming much more involved in embryonic stem cell research in the coming years as a result of the change in administration? I think that there is a real impetus for change because the science is taking us there and the public feeling is taking us there. So, I think the federal government will get more involved no matter who wins. The devil is in the details, but, on the whole, I think the next administration will change policy.

The Case For Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Jonathan Moreno

The important questions now are how much of a leadership role will the next administration take and how efficiently will the government be able to push this very promising field of scientific research forward?

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.