Science and Beneficence
Cynthia Fitch, Ph.D.: In Response to Ted Peters
Stem cells are the focus of a storm of controversy — not because
of what they might do for human health and disease treatment, but because
of their source. It is to me a classic case of asking, “Does the
end justify the means?”
Ted Peters, noted bioethicist and author,
spoke about this dilemma while a guest on the Seattle Pacific University
campus this past spring, and his lecture has now been adapted for Response.
As a geneticist and a biology professor, my responses to Peters’ views
and to the therapeutic cloning and stem cell controversy are shaped by
the scientific advances being made, the integrity of the science of stem
cells itself and, of course, the long-term benefits versus the human
costs that this research brings. As a Christian, my responses are shaped
by my understanding of God’s purposes
in the world and our responsibilities as his people.
that the mainstream of the scientific
community is against human reproductive cloning, and this is certainly
a position I share. But therapeutic cloning, in my opinion, is a
different matter and requires a somewhat different analysis.
though pluripotent embryonic stem cells seem like a
long-awaited therapeutic solution, there are numerous technical
challenges to their use, not to mention ethical ones. Technical
details aside, however, the ethical debate centers on the value
of the source of these cells: the embryo.
Since the establishment
of cell lines only has to be done once, one argument is to simply
let the scientific research continue on established cell lines
and not destroy any new embryos. There are currently 19 existing
embryonic stem cell lines available through the Human Embryonic
Stem Cell Registry at the National
Institutes of Health. Guidelines for research on these lines using
federal funding were issued by President George W. Bush on August
9, 2001. They require that (1) the removal of the inner cell mass
from the embryo has already been initiated and (2) the embryo from
which the stem cell line was derived no longer has the possibility
of development as a human being. In addition,
the guidelines state that (3) the stem cells must have been derived
from an embryo that was created for reproductive purposes,
(4) the embryo was no longer needed for these purposes,
(5) informed consent must have been obtained for the donation of
the embryo and (6) no financial inducements were provided for donation
of the embryo.
These guidelines seem to me to be themselves an
excellent example of Peters’ use
of the term “beneficence.” They seek to place limits on the use of
human embryonic stem cells while still allowing for research that may improve
After weighing the options, both as a scientist and as a
Christian, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to continue to vigorously
research adult stem cells, their potential therapies and their varied sources
before agreeing that embryonic stem cell research is the “be all, end all” for
regenerative medicine. At the same time, I do not support the destruction of
the existing embryonic stem cell lines as some people advocate. Instead,
I think research should continue on those lines, and I would like
to see them available to an even broader group of researchers so that
more scientific minds can come together to discover the potential of
these cells. We need a great deal more information about both adult stem
cells and embryonic stem cells to make
the important decisions before us.
Where does the stem cell controversy
lead scientists? Are we really the “high priests of nature” Peters describes?
Scientists are often perceived as keeping dark secrets only to release them on
an unsuspecting general population and use the information to fan debate. In
my opinion, however, scientists are just like much of the general population.
They desire to follow the beneficence principle Peters sets out, but genuinely
disagree among themselves
about the status of the embryo. Thus we scientists, too, debate the
direction of stem cell research. Participating in this discussion should
be well-informed Christians and people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds. They should be knowledgeable about the biology
of stem cells, their sources and their incredible potential for disease
treatment. They should
also understand the ethical implications of the science.
All of this
makes Christian higher education more important than ever as a conduit
of information and dialogue. Like no other, this controversy is an
opportunity for us to engage the culture around us by becoming educated,
listening to others and actively expressing our own views. We can
truly help to shape the world’s understanding of the
best approach to stem cell research.
— BY CYNTHIA FITCH, ASSOCIATE
PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY, SEATTLE PACIFIC UNIVERSITY
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