Draw an ethical line in regulating research Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Mar. 12, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

On March 9, President Barack Obama issued an executive order reversing the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. On that same day I received a news release from John Rogers, who calls himself a Wisconsin-based “political advisor” for actor Michael J. Fox.

Editor's View
Mary C. Uhler

Fox, of course, has been a strong supporter of using human embryos in research. Rogers was obviously overjoyed about the president’s executive order. His statement said that the fight has continued relentlessly “against those who placed politics above moving medical discoveries forward.”

As a political advisor, I find it strange that Rogers speaks against “politics.” In his Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum, issued the same day as the executive order, President Obama said that he, too, wants to keep politics out of medical research.

Politics regulates society

Both Rogers and the president are off base. Politics shouldn’t be considered a bad word. It is all about the process by which people in a society make decisions. Politics deals with behavior within civil governments, but it is also part of all human interactions, including business, academic, and religious areas.

Politics refers to the regulation of society and the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy. Almost everything we do in society has some political aspect to it, including, certainly, scientific research with medical implications.

If we didn’t develop policies to regular science, we could have Frankenstein’s monsters in the world. More practically, there could be serious viruses or bacteria developed which could destroy humanity. 

Drawing the line

Politics should be involved in scientific research. But more importantly, we need to place ethics above politics and scientific research. That is the line that must be drawn.

Human embryos are fully human beings. All of us began as those tiny embryos. When we destroy an embryo in the name of scientific advancement, we are crossing a moral and ethical line. In that case, we are saying that the end justifies the means.

What President Obama doesn’t seem to realize is that enormous progress has been made in adult stem-cell research and in efforts to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells. 

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, pointed this out in a statement, “After all, if the same, or similar, results can be obtained without endangering embryos, on what basis can their destruction be warranted?” 

Donohue added, “Obama seems to know that he is in dangerous territory, but fails to say why. For example, he insists that embryonic stem cell research demands ‘proper guidelines and strict oversight’ so that ‘the perils can be avoided.’ 

“What perils is he talking about? If the killing of nascent human life isn’t an issue — which he apparently thinks it isn’t — then what are the perils associated with this research?”

Destroying human life at any stage should NOT be allowed in scientific research. Perhaps President Obama should make a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In the basement of the museum is an exhibit detailing the scientific “experiments” done during the Nazi regime in Germany, when human life was considered “expendable” in the name of scientific progress.

Make sure research is regulated

President Obama did speak against human cloning, which he said is “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.” He said he would work to ensure that “our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.”

Yet, Obama said that scientific advisers should be appointed “based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology.” I think it is naive to think that anyone would be completely neutral. Everyone has some political or ideological beliefs. The question is: what are their beliefs and how do they apply them to their decisions?

We must continue to keep an eye on scientific research to make sure it is ethical, moral, and safe. Deregulation of the economic sector has not proven to have helped society, witness the economic crisis we’re now experiencing. Deregulation of scientific research allowing destruction of human life should not be allowed.

We must encourage the president and other public policy makers to see the error of their ways and put ethics above politics. Science has always taught — as does the Catholic Church — that life begins at fertilization.  We must draw an ethical line in regulating research so that human embryos are not destroyed in the name of scientific and medical advancement.