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The Ethics of Science

Monday, March 8, 2004; Page A18

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and Thomas Jefferson both dabbled in science as well as politics. Nowadays, American scientists and American politicians more often find themselves separated by a gulf of mutual ignorance and distrust. A rare institution that has tried to overcome that gulf is the President's Council on Bioethics. The council is unusual both because its membership includes "right-to-lifers" as well as some of the country's best-known scientists, and because its nuanced, painstaking public reports have tried to accommodate the views of all, albeit not always to everyone's satisfaction.

Last week, some of that collegiality seemed to break down. Elizabeth Blackburn, a council member who was abruptly dismissed, accused the Bush administration of trying to reshape the council to suit its views, and thus "hold science hostage to ideology." The council chairman, Leon Kass, denies the charge as well as any desire to change the council's political makeup. The squabble, which seems partly to revolve around a series of misunderstandings, might easily be dismissed as a tempest in a teapot if the function that the council serves -- trying to draw regulatory and ethical lines around startling new forms of research -- were not so important.

As if to underline that point, one of those lines, drawn earlier in the course of this administration, began to look fainter last week. On Wednesday, some Harvard scientists announced that they had created 17 new colonies of human embryonic stem cells, more than doubling the world's supply. The colonies, they said, were created without federal research funding, which -- after President Bush declared a moratorium on federal support for stem cell creation in August 2001 -- was restricted to the 78 cell lines then in existence. The president's decision was taken on the grounds that the creation of stem cell lines requires the destruction of five-day-old human embryos.

In practice, the president's decision created as much ambiguity as it resolved. It didn't prevent scientists and doctors from creating or destroying human embryos, practices that are still part of some fertility treatments. As the Harvard announcement proved, it also didn't prevent scientists from searching for other sources of funding for the research. The compromise seems also to have failed to leave enough stem cells for researchers to work on: According to an unpublished report circulating on Capitol Hill, only 15 usable stem cell lines remain. Prohibiting the creation of more could have the effect of retarding research into life-saving treatments of several medical conditions. It could also have the effect of chasing good scientists out of the country: Not everybody has the same access to private funding as the Harvard cell biologists, and if they can't find research money here, they'll find it elsewhere.

The president's policy, while perhaps well-intentioned, has neither allowed good research to continue nor prevented science from going down the "slippery slope" it was already headed toward. The policy must be reexamined -- and in an atmosphere of total honesty about what the scientific and moral consequences of new funding and regulatory decisions will be. The President's Council on Bioethics is still one of the few institutions that could offer advice. Its chairman, its members and the Bush administration must bend even further backward to prove that they really do intend to take all views into account.


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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