Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Stem Cell Grail

Michelle Kirtley


January 23, 2006

Last week's hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court highlighted many of the controversial debates now raging over competing claims. Does the right of the mother to govern her own reproductive health outweigh the right-to-life of the developing baby? How can concerns about national security also respect civil liberties? So also, in the case of the embryonic stem-cell debate, the value of the eight-day old embryo is pitted against the potential to relieve suffering. For many, the tangible anguish of friends and family members outweighs concern for an unsympathetic clump of cells in a Petri dish. Framed this way, who wouldn't favor embryonic stem-cell research?

Ask the wrong question, and you'll get the wrong answer. In reality, bioethical issues such as embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, and nanotechnology force us to confront the insidious question of whether the ends justify the means.

The South Koreans have recently learned this lesson the hard way. Cloning superstar Hwang Woo-Suk catapulted into the limelight (his picture even featured on a Korean postage stamp) after supposedly becoming the first (and only) scientist to successfully derive stem cells from a cloned human embryo. Now, he faces possible criminal charges in one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud in recent decades.

For many scientists, this discovery represented the Holy Grail of stem-cell research. Using human cloning, they hoped to derive patient-matched embryonic stem cells that wouldn't face immune rejection and to develop disease-specific stem-cell lines for research. (In this technique, an embryo would be cloned from a patient with Type I diabetes in order to develop embryonic stem cells for their own treatment and to develop a diabetes cell line for research.)

Yet investigators recently confirmed that Hwang had fabricated his data and the Holy Grail of using cloning to make stem cells became fantasy once again.

For years, some scientists, politicians, and ethicists have been calling for a closer look into the ethics of human cloning. Research cloning necessarily involves the specific creation of a human embryo whose sole destiny is destruction. Although the ends are noble, the means are reprehensible.

Many also questioned the impact of human research cloning on women, since cloning requires women's eggs. Some pro-choice feminists, such as Judy Norsigian, author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, have lobbied for a moratorium on human research cloning because for them the end of treating disease through cloning cannot be justified because the means involve the potential exploitation of women.

This potential became reality when some of Hwang's own junior researchers donated their eggs in the face of intense pressure, including, according to some reports, promises of authorship on the landmark papers. That these ethical lapses have already occurred may be a signal that once a society decides that curing disease is worth any price, exploitation is sure to follow. If the value of the embryo (or women) is not enough to make us pause on our quest for cures, will we soon decide that the elderly or the infirm are also expendable? We should not be surprised that such a framework also led to scientific fraud.

The president of Seoul National University apologized to his nation: "Our society has been overwhelmed with the principle of focusing on outcome instead of procedure, and we forgot that ends cannot justify the means." The United States should ban the unethical act of human cloning lest we also forget that freedom from disease is not worth sacrificing our commitment to the protection of human dignity.

—Michelle Kirtley, Ph.D., Professional Staff
    Congressman Dave Weldon, M.D. (R.FL)


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”