What Can We Learn from the Stem Cell Debates

A report from The Witherspoon Council, a newly-formed bioethics body, argues that even the noblest aspirations of the scientific enterprise must be guided by ethics and governed under political authority.

The stem cell debates of the past decade and a half were among the most heated controversies about science and politics in recent memory, raising important questions about how to promote and fund scientific research while protecting human life at all its stages. “The Stem Cell Debates: Lessons for Science and Politics,” a major report published earlier this year by the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science, revisits those debates, articulating lessons about how moral reasoning must shape public deliberation about science. (The Witherspoon Council is a project of the Witherspoon Institute, which publishes Public Discourse, and the Council’s report was published in The New Atlantis, the quarterly journal where I work as assistant editor.)

Stem cells are special types of cells that are capable of turning into other types of cells. For this reason, they are often referred to as “master” cells. Some stem cells can turn into only a few specific types of cells; others have the power to turn into any type of cell in the body. Stem cells derived from human embryos are of the latter type, which makes them particularly attractive to medical researchers for potential future therapies—but these stem cells are derived by destroying human embryos. The ethical concern over the destruction of early human life gave rise to political controversy. Ardent advocates of stem cell research sought unqualified government support and federal funding for all possible avenues of stem cell therapies, while critics of embryonic stem cell research argued that taxpayer dollars should not fund medical experiments that destroy human life.

As the Witherspoon Council’s report points out, critics of embryonic stem cell research were sometimes attacked for being “anti-science.” The report, therefore, pays careful attention to the different meanings of the term “science”—distinguishing between science as a form of knowledge about the natural world, and science as the activity dedicated to the pursuit of that knowledge, often with the aim of putting it to some technological use. This distinction between these two ways of talking about science is crucial for understanding the proper relationship between science and politics.

Science, understood as a form of knowledge, is used by policymakers and the public as a source of information and advice concerning physical phenomena, technology, and other topics with relevance to public policy. In this sense, science has a measure of authority in the political process, as it is our most reliable form of knowledge concerning the natural world. Scientific knowledge is subject to critical analysis and debate—indeed, such critical debate is a defining feature of science—but it is not subject to political authority or regulation. However, insofar as we speak of science as an activity or a project, it is just one of the many activities that the government can support, regulate, fund, or restrict, depending on the demands of justice, public policy, and fiscal prudence.

The Council’s report makes clear that the chief policy question in the stem cell debates concerned the second type of relationship between science and politics, specifically how and whether the government ought to support this promising, but ethically controversial, field. However, scientific knowledge is also necessary for clear thinking about the ethical and political aspects of stem cell research; questions concerning the nature of the human embryo, the potential for cures, and the value of alternative avenues of research were all important parts of the stem cell debates.

Recognizing the importance of these scientific questions, the Witherspoon Council’s report offers an account of the medical treatments that stem cell research might someday make possible, provides a basic description of the relevant embryology necessary for reasoning about the moral status of the embryo, and describes the potential alternative techniques that might obviate the need for stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

Unfortunately, the stem cell debates were marred by widespread misunderstandings and even willful deceptions perpetrated by partisans on both sides. The Witherspoon Council report identifies ten of the most common of these misrepresentations, including the following claims:

• The Bush administration banned stem cell research. In fact, the federal government under President George W. Bush spent almost $300 million on embryonic stem cell research.

• America fell behind other countries in stem cell researchIn fact, by any measure, the United States has led the world in this field.

• Adult stem cells are superior to embryonic stem cells, or embryonic stem cells are superior to adult stem cellsIn fact, each kind of cell has been seen to potentially offer its own distinct therapeutic value.

• More than 100 million ailing Americans stand to benefit from embryonic stem cell researchIn fact, this often-cited figure is risibly inflated, and it relies on the scientifically untenable assumption that embryonic stem cells will provide “cures” for broad categories of disease such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and birth defects.

The Witherspoon Council report also lays out four case studies that reveal the deeply problematic ways in which the stem cell debates were conducted by policymakers, activists, journalists, and scientists. Although everyone involved placed a high value on the good of human life, that fact did not provide enough common ground to resolve the question of which kinds of human life qualify for defense, and whether defending ailing human life justifies destroying human life at its earliest stages. Neither was scientific knowledge sufficient for resolving the debates, since no one’s ethical reasoning was simply reducible to scientific facts alone. Because the debates were rooted in an ethical disagreement over the moral status of the embryo, policymakers could not simply defer their decisions to scientific experts.

When President Obama announced his new stem cell funding policy in 2009, he described it as “an important step in advancing the cause of science in America,” because:

promoting science isn’t just about providing resources; it’s also about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about letting scientists … do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient. Especially when it’s inconvenient.

As the Witherspoon Council report notes, nearly every aspect of this statement was mistaken. Contra President Obama, the key policy question in the American stem cell debates was precisely over whether the government should provide resources for a controversial area of research. Free and open inquiry was never seriously challenged and scientists were never manipulated or coerced. And as for listening to scientists “especially when it’s inconvenient”—surely an allusion to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s 2006 movie on climate change—the President was implying that stem cell policy, along with policies on climate and a host of other issues, ought to be dictated by scientists. However, it is hard to imagine how there was anything “inconvenient” about the often extravagantly optimistic claims of stem cell researchers. If anything, the real “inconvenient truth” in the stem cell debates was that the pursuit of much-wanted cures would require the destruction of nascent human lives.

President Obama’s rhetoric in his announcement of the new stem cell policy is consistent with the promise he made in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” implying that policymakers ought to simply accede to scientists’ advice and requests—in other words, that science ought to be above or outside of politics. But as the Witherspoon Council report argues, the scientific enterprise must be guided by ethics and governed under political authority. In our democratic republic, it is fitting and appropriate for lawmakers and the public to determine responsible ethical constraints on science. While all sides in the stem cell debates share in the hope that biomedical research will treat and relieve the suffering of people with serious ailments, this hope must be balanced against other moral goods. Science requires ethical boundaries, even when pursued for morally laudable goals.

The subsequent and ongoing development of less morally controversial alternatives to embryo-destructive stem cell research suggests that the stem cell debates may one day soon be essentially resolved, and so the Witherspoon Council report concludes by looking beyond the stem cell debates toward the broader moral meaning of biotechnology. Careful consideration of the moral questions raised by the assisted reproductive technology (e.g., in vitro fertilization) that made embryonic stem cell research possible in the first place has been sorely needed, and will remain critical in the years to come. As biomedical advances continue, promising to improve our lives by relieving suffering and bringing us new capabilities to control our biology, sober and thoughtful voices will be required to sustain these practices in a way that elevates rather than degrades the human beings and the society they are meant to benefit.

This article originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ and is reprinted with permission.

Brendan Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis.
  • We often hear that there have been no successful therapies using embryonic stem cells while there have been many therapies using adult stem cells. Is this true? If it is true, I find it interesting that no good has come of embryonic stem cell research. It’s almost like trying to travel faster than the speed of light – the universe makes it impossible, so there’s no point in even trying.