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.
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
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. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen
University Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and of History and Sociology
of Science at Penn as well as a senior fellow at the Center for American
Progress in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was president of the American
Society for Bioethics and Humanities and served as a senior staff member for
two presidential advisory committees.
explaining the case against embryonic stem cell research is made by Yuval Levin, author of
Tyranny of Reason, and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public
Center in Washington, D.C.
Moreno, David and Lyn
Professor and Professor of Medical Ethics and of the History and Sociology of
Science, University of Pennsylvania;
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer
in the United States and Japan succeeded
in turning adult skin cells into cells that appeared to behave like embryonic
stem cells in that they could be programmed to act like any cell in the body.
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. Is this true?
From the very beginning of this controversy, there has been
a tendency for non-scientists to talk as though they were scientists. If you
talk to any of the stem cell biologists, they’ll tell you that the need for
human embryonic stem cells continues and will continue for the foreseeable
future for a number of reasons. For one thing, in order to know what those
alternatives can do, they’ll need to be compared with something, and the gold
standard continues to be human embryonic stem cells. 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
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. There is a lot of variation here, which
is one of the reasons the debate has been so complicated. It is not a
I don’t consider myself a great moral theologian. I am
trained in philosophy, and I’m an observer of those thinkers. 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.
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. I would say that we are at the stage of
what the theologians and philosophers call “weighing and balancing.”
Of course, there is
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.
I don’t see that as the course that we are on. 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.
If a child dies from a disease that might have been
preventable if we had been able to research that disease using embryos already
slated for destruction or persistent refrigeration – such as embryos used at in
vitrofertilization clinics – I don’t
see how the death of that child contributes to human dignity.
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 don’t mean to suggest that I don’t think we will have
strenuous, vigorous debates about which kinds of genetic interventions to
entertain in the next decades. I think we will. But I don’t think that the
course of those debates is so settled that we can give up the potential for
improving the opportunities for human flourishing. I certainly don’t dismiss those
concerns, but I also think we should be very careful to ground these debates in
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? If so, how?
It would be hard to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition
doesn’t inform, in some sense, everybody’s views about everything. But after
five-plus thousand years of Judaism and a couple thousand years of
Christianity, that tradition does not speak with a single voice. I’m very leery
of those who purport to offer the univocal interpretation of that tradition. As
I’ve already mentioned, there is variation within traditions about the nature
and significance of the human embryo.
As for myself, there is one concept in the Judeo-Christian
tradition that I find particularly important: the sense that we are all
basically made of the same stuff and have an overwhelming obligation not to be
cruel to each other. 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.
What about the idea,
taken from both Judaism and Christianity, that there is essential human dignity
based on God’s care for each individual in his creation? Has this notion of God-centered
concern for each individual made Western societies, in particular, more careful
about ethical issues than countries with different traditions, such as China or Korea?
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. So I would be
reluctant to generalize based on geography.
The Pew Forum and the
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have done polling on the
stem cell issue over the last six or seven years and have found that Americans generally
favor embryonic stem cell research. 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
There’s certainly plenty of hyperbole on both sides. There
have been descriptions of disemboweling embryos as though they were fetuses,
exploiting the fact that most Americans don’t have a Ph.D. in embryology or
fetal anatomy. I think that opponents of stem cell research are losing the
American people because Americans don’t like to see an area of potentially
important medical research or science closed off.
Recently, I’ve been reading a history of science policy in
the United States,
and it is fascinating to be reminded that virtually every one of the founders
considered him- or herself a scientist or a natural philosopher. 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. The main objection at the time was
that such activities should be undertaken by individual states rather than the
federal government – it was a states’ rights issue.
because the states are helping to drive policy on stem cells in a way that they
don’t in many other research endeavors.
That’s right. I think having the states take the lead is a
good thing in the short term. In the long term, however, we will rue having
states drive policy because it’s going to make other issues a lot more
complicated, such as policies on intellectual property rights. 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 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
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.