Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †
-Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani
"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Toward the New Serfdom
How America came to accept using human embryos for research

June 17, 2008

9:00 AM EST

In the ten years since Dr. James Thomson at the University of Madison first procured human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), support for the prospect of using human embryos and fetuses for research purposes has gradually seeped into the American mindset to the point at which it is now broadly tolerated, if not openly endorsed, especially in the political arena, in academia, and certainly within the scientific community.[i][1]
As we continue to advance as a nation into the age of developmental biology there is reason to fear that Americans are slowly coming to embrace the idea of submitting one class of our citizenry to a lethal form of biotech serfdom. The class I am talking about, of course, are ex utero human embryos and early stage human fetuses.

How have we gotten to the point now where arguably half of the American population claims to approve of embryo-destructive biomedical research?

The very prospect of conducting direct research on human embryos, or creating them explicitly for the purposes of research, had been until very recently the object of near universal moral opprobrium in the public square. That began to change, however, with the advent of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the 1970s which made it possible to create human embryos in the laboratory and to engage in research on human embryonic development in addition to fertility problems. From that point on, the biomedical establishment's prospects for incorporating human embryos into their preferred research platforms was on the horizon as never before. Advocates knew at the time that progress in this direction would require a process of slowly eroding away popular resistance to the idea of using embryos for research purposes.

In 1994, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened the Human Embryo Research Panel in response to growing tensions over this prospect. The panel was designed to exclude from membership individuals who objected to embryo-destructive research. In its 1994 "Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel" the panel stated:

From the perspective of public policy, the Panel concludes that sufficient arguments exist to support the permissibility of certain areas of research involving the preimplantation human embryo within a framework of stringent guidelines. This conclusion is based on an assessment of the moral status of the preimplantation embryo from various viewpoints and not solely on its location ex utero... Although the preimplantation human embryo warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life, it does not have the same moral status as an infant or a child (p. x).

That panel went on to recommend[ii][2] federal funding for (1) the use of left over IVF embryos, as well as for (2) the direct creation of human embryos for research purposes. Both proposals received immediate public moral reprehension, including bipartisan rebukes from within Congress, consternation from the Clinton White House, and even a rebuke from The Washington Post editorial board: "The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable," said the Post editorial. "[I]t is not necessary to be against abortion rights, or to believe human life literally begins at conception, to be deeply alarmed by the notion of scientists' purposely causing conceptions in a context entirely divorced from even the potential of reproduction."[iii][3]

Not withstanding the rebukes, however, the panel's enthusiasm for ushering in the era of embryo and fetal-based biomedical research was a clarion call to a broad body of researchers to continue to advance the overarching project of using embryos for research. The next crucial step in that project would come into play just four years later, namely, to garner broad public acceptance for human embryonic stem cell research.

Under immediate and severe pressure from Congress, President Clinton rejected the panel's second recommendation, but embraced the first and permitted the NIH to consider applications for the funding of research using embryos left over from IVF procedures. Congress disagreed, however, and attached language to the 1996 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (the annual budget bill that funds the HHS and the National Institutes of Health) prohibiting the use of federal funds for any research that destroys, discards or seriously endangers human embryos, or that creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment,[iv][4] has been attached to the HHS appropriations bill each year since then.

The following year, 1997, Ian Wilmut announced the birth of Dolly the sheep--the first mammal ever to be successfully cloned. This added further impetus to the hopes of harnessing the laws not only of mammalian development in general but especially of primate development. A year later, 1998, the science of developmental biology went mainstream when Dr. Thomson announced the isolation of hESCs for the first time.

This event added new and severe pressure on the Clinton administration to open the coffers of the NIH to fund research on hESCs. In response, the Clinton administration settled on a loophole in the Dickey Amendment. While the latter prohibits federal funding on research that would directly harm or destroy embryos, it did not appear to prohibit federal funding of research on the cells derived from human embryos once the act of embryo destruction had been accomplished and the lines of embryonic stem cells derived. Accordingly, the Clinton administration determined that federal funding could be used to fund research on cells derived from human embryos and requested that adequate guidelines be drawn up to govern the use of federal monies in this way. Those guidelines were never implemented, however. It was not until August 9, 2001 when President Bush announced a carefully crafted policy that would allow a limited amount of federal funding on the then already existing lines of hESCs, a policy he believed would not involve federal taxpayer money to be used for further embryo-destructive research, but which at the same time would allow research on hESCs to go forward.

Meanwhile, over the course of time, as the creation, donation and destruction of human embryos for research continued, vocal advocates of such research engaged in a constant and effective - if somewhat misleading - effort aimed at swaying public opinion in their favor. As a result, public opinion has gradually grown more tolerant of the once almost universally condemned notion that some human life is expendable if it can be of benefit to others.

Such is the road[v][5] that has brought us to where we are today in which polls will invariably state that approximately 50% of the country will tolerate embryo-destructive research on the belief that this will lead to ground-breaking therapies. I personally hold out hope that we can still get ourselves off the road to biotech serfdom. But it will continue to take enormous amounts of time, money, and energy to educate Americans on the moral and scientific facts which must inform their attitudes and opinions about stem cell research.

What Americans Think About Embryo Research
A new poll tells us we shouldn't be so sure we know.

June 24, 2008

9:00 AM EST

In my column last week, I explored the recent historical events and politicking that have come to shape contemporary American attitudes toward embryo-destructive stem cell research. Arguably, most polls in recent years have indicated a slowly growing acceptance of such research. A new poll, however, conducted by Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center and recently published in the journal The New Atlantis, challenges us to be cautious about our claims in this area.

In the stem cell wars, "all sides," writes Yuval Levin, "have wanted to claim a preexisting bedrock of widely shared attitudes backing their favored policy outcome." The EPPC poll suggests, by contrast, that "to better understand public opinion on bioethics, one must begin by abandoning the premise of just about all those who have sought to wield such opinion in the political arena: that the public has views that are clearly defined or strongly held" (emphasis added).

Now, it is well known that polls will report views differently depending on how questions are formulated by the pollsters - this is no secret to anyone who has studied or conducted polling or used polling research to build an argument. The EPPC poll [1] reveals something different. By altering the formulation of questions within the poll itself, EPPC pollsters have garnered convincing evidence that Americans' views on stem cell research in general, and embryo-destructive research in particular, will not only be reported differently depending on how a question is asked, but that their views are simply not well defined at all. Their views are ill-defined because, as those being polled will generally admit, their knowledge of stem cell science is exceptionally poor. [2]

Here is a sampling of its findings.

Regarding embryo-destructive stem cell research specifically, when the question was posed in ethical terms, a small majority of respondents expressed opposition:

It is unethical to destroy human embryos for the purposes of research because doing so destroys human embryos that are human beings and could otherwise have developed and grown like every other human being.

Total agree: 51%

But when the question was rephrased in terms of curing diseases the result was different:

The social, economic and personal costs of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos.

Total agree: 54%

But when the question was cast as a more crystalline moral principle, the same respondents shifted their responses again:

An embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.

Total agree: 62%

Yuval Levin is the author of the study and director of the EPPC's program on Bioethics and American Democracy. One important conclusion Yuval notes in the article is that:

Such glaring contradictions in opinions about the basic facts and circumstances of embryo research suggest that most Americans simply do not grasp how these different pieces hang together, and therefore respond positively or negatively based on the portion of the larger picture they happen to be presented with. Both medical promise and ethical concern prove highly persuasive, even though they point in opposite directions.

In an email, I asked Yuval to elaborate further on this finding in particular. On this point, he underlined the key finding of the poll: Americans know they don't know enough about embryo research to have well formed opinions. Quoting Yuval:

One of the lessons of the poll is... that the level of substantive public knowledge of the embryo ethics issues in particular is extremely low, and that people's confidence in their knowledge is also extremely low. That latter point is especially important, because it is very unusual. There are very few issues on which pollsters find respondents telling them frankly that they have little or no knowledge. This acknowledged lack of confidence offers an opening for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues.

Consequently, as Yuval cogently insists in the article, "the goal of activists and interested parties to the bioethics debates should be to learn how best to educate the public, rather than to wield essentially meaningless statistics about existing attitudes." I couldn't agree more.

What is desperately needed, at the current juncture in the stem cell wars, is an on-going, honest, and accessible presentation of the facts of stem cell science in the public square.

Yuval went on to describe for me what he considers the most salient of the lessons learned from this poll:

These lessons add up to a very important whole: people want a way forward that respects ethics and advances medicine, and they don't know enough to know if such a way is possible. That is the mission for those of us seeking to teach the public about these issues: to show them that there are ways to advance medical research while respecting ethical boundaries, and that a greater understanding of the facts involved will demonstrate that. It is not the case that the desire for cures trumps all. That creates a huge opening for us, and helps us begin to see how we might walk through it and influence public opinion to support ethical research.

In a word, Yuval is saying that we have to seize the moment. With the evidence mounting every day that ethically acceptable alternatives to embryo-destructive research may well prove to be even more effective and efficient than their immoral alternatives, we have to continue to make this known to the broader public and to our elected officials. As Yuval puts it, it would indeed be a happy day when we could see science and ethics marching together, rather than in opposition.


Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.


[1] The poll was conducted by the polling company, inc., beginning in August 2007 with two focus groups conducted in Illinois, and concluding in February 2008 with a national telephone survey based on information garnered from the focus groups and some past polling on similar issues. The survey involved 1,003 American adults, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

[2] Notes Levin: "This relative absence of knowledge about even the most prominent of the embryo-research issues is made emphatically clearer in the responses to particular questions of fact. Asked, for instance, whether adult or embryonic stem cell research had yielded any therapeutic results, only 23% of respondents answered correctly that, to date, only adult stem cells have resulted in treatments for disease. This lack of basic knowledge and confidence means that people are uncertain of the facts and the issues at stake, so that how the subject is framed makes an enormous difference in shaping judgments about policy preferences."

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