A Review of the Book The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy

No items found.
Back to Dignitas Issue

The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy (Ed. Suzanne Holland, Karen Labacqz, and Laurie Zoloth; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001)

The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy contains twenty articles addressing this highly controversial area of research. Part I reviews the science behind stem cell research, as well as the historical context underlying the 1999 National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) report on the topic. Two of the book’s editors also share personal insights gained from their experience as ethics consultants at Geron, a leading biotechnology company engaged in this research.

Part II addresses the political issues lying behind the NBAC report. Three articles evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the report, concluding that its central point of contention concerns the human embryo’s moral status. The editors express their dismay at how poorly NBAC justified its conclusion that human embryos may be destroyed in research. Suzanne Holland also addresses stem cell research from a feminist perspective. While making some questionable claims, she raises important concerns about justice and the impact this research has on women.

Part III contains eight articles addressing from various religious perspectives the ethical issues raised by embryonic stem cell research. Somewhat surprisingly only Gilbert Meilaender’s article opposes such research. Ted Peters addresses arguments made by The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in conjunction with the organization Do No Harm. He incorrectly claims that these two organizations view stem cells themselves as potential persons and then proceeds to defeat this straw man by offering a view of personhood as something that “depends on being called by a future parental relationship.” Karen Lebacqz notes various instances in which we respect things we kill (e.g., animals in slaughter-houses) and concludes that human embryos can therefore be destroyed in respectful ways. However, she fails to nuance her argument for the issue at hand.

Part IV contains five articles on public policy that, taken together, make this book worth reading. Paul Root Wolpe and Glenn McGee critique the role bioethicists have played in public policy. They assert that rather than simply furthering biotechnology interests, the field of bioethics should serve to clarify important issues and to promote public debate in open and honest ways. The final chapter describes Laurie Zoloth’s “journey” as a philosopher on the Geron Ethics Advisory Board. She confesses that she and her colleagues were “ethicists dazzled by the scientists,” their thinking always one step behind the latest technological development.

Zoloth concludes the book with a striking word-picture. When driving to Geron’s beautiful headquarters, she sometimes missed her turn and ended up in a neighborhood where the future “is far more bleak.” Next to the riches of Geron lay utter poverty, where houses, churches, and even health clinics are dilapidated and under-funded. It is this reviewer’s belief that apart from the absolute ethical standard prohibiting the destruction of human embryos, the commitment to justice calls for a broader examination of the drive for high-tech medicine when so many have access to little or no health care. Further examination of how justice should be served is greatly needed, and this book provides some good starting points.