Beware of Ethics and False Science

Dianne N. Irving
July 15, 2001
Newsday (Sunday, July 15, 2001), all editions;
also (listed)
Reproduced with Permission

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer calmly assures us that President George W. Bush's decision on stem cell research will be based on a thorough, nonpartisan consideration of the "ethics" and "science" involved.

But, which "ethics" and which "science"?

Most of us equate "ethics" in this situation with "bioethics" - the academic field whose specialists write articles, appear on television, teach courses, and advise hospitals and presidents about issues in medicine and biomedical research. Bioethicists are buzzing about the White House at this moment, and the president is said to be taking their advice very seriously.

For 30 years, bioethics has been touted as the perfect, "neutral" ethics for a multicultural, pluralistic, democratic society where no one person's or group's opinions should be forced on the rest of us. But all ethical theories, including bioethics, take a stand on what is right or wrong. They can never be neutral. And this particular ethics contains an agenda that is leading us down a very chaotic path.

Bioethics was born in 1978, in a report by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which had been mandated by Congress to identify basic ethical principles to guide research involving human subjects. The commission established three principles: respect for persons (meaning autonomy, respect for individual choice), justice (fair distribution of risks and benefits of research) and beneficence (defined, contradictorily, both as the "good" of an individual patient and as the "greatest good for society"). An ethical decision would need to satisfy all three principles at once. In practice this is impossible, but this fact didn't stop the government from using these principles as the basis for federal regulations, beginning in 1981.

If no one of the three principles can outweigh another, it is impossible to resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise in real life. For example, if a patient has the absolute autonomy to demand all medical procedures, even in the most hopeless case, how can we weigh that claim against the principle of justice, which requires a fair allocation of scarce medical resources, or against the principle of beneficence, which refers to achieving the greatest good? We can't.

The fact is, bioethics is only one ethical theory alongside dozens of others, and different theories can lead to different ethical conclusions. We have choices of ethical theories we can make.

Compare bioethics with natural law ethics, for instance. Bioethics concludes that euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and high-risk experimental research using persons with mental illness are all ethical. Natural law ethics concludes the opposite. Bioethics defines the "common good" in mathematical terms: The government must achieve the "greatest good for the greatest number." Natural law ethics defines the "common good" in human terms: The government exists to protect the goods, such as food, water, shelter and life, that all humans share in common by virtue of their shared humanity. That's a very different set of values, and not the one in use by the U.S. federal government.

How prophetic was the early comment by Hastings Center scholar Robert Morison: "What one fears is that the commission may become the mechanism whereby the speculations of the ethicists become the law of the land. It is already far too easy for abstract notions of right and wrong to emerge as rules which begin their life as 'guidelines' but culminate in the force of law." Is "bioethics" the ethics on which President Bush wants to base his stem cell decision? Or any of us?

And what "science" is the president going to use - the precise tradition of human embryology, or the fake science that has marred bioethics' history from the start? Note that the National Commission (and the National Research Act of 1974 that created it) by its own admission used scientific "definitions which, in some instances, differ from medical, legal or common usage."

Take their definitions of "pregnancy" and "fetus" - both falsely defined as "beginning at implantation." It has been accepted scientific truth since the 1880s, with the publication of Wilhelm His' "Human Embryology," that pregnancy begins at fertilization, with the formation of the single-cell embryonic zygote in the woman's fallopian tube. And "fetus" is accurately defined as "the developing human being from 9 weeks until birth."

Then there was the scientifically fake term "pre-embryo," used by bioethics from the beginning to preclude the early human embryo from protection against research abuses. This decision was especially lucrative at the time for the emerging techniques of in vitro fertilization. A "pre-embryo" supposedly had a reduced moral status, as less than human, and therefore could be used and destroyed in experimental research for the greater good. These tiny cells, defined in embryology as human beings - there is no pre-embryo at fertilization but rather a real, live human embryo, an embryonic person - were thus linguistically reduced to research objects rather than humans with inherent rights.

The term "stem cell" is itself a fake term - the replacement in the current debates for "pre-embryo." In scientific terminology, once removed from the intact embryo, stem cells are no longer "stem cells." They can undergo what is called "regulation" and become new, whole embryos. This is what happens naturally in monozygotic twinning. In embryology, these cells are defined as "totipotent" - having the capacity to develop into bigger human beings, complete with all tissues and organs. The reason that these cells can develop into the many different kinds of human tissue that medical researchers feel can help treat certain diseases is because they are living human beings to being with.

The current stem cell debate, then, is just the latest chapter in the bioethics phenomenon. An ethical and scientific fog now surrounds the president.

Last Tuesday, Bush met with several bioethicists, indicating, The Washington Post reported, "a new level of personal attention to the matter." Polls show that Americans are confused about stem cell research. No wonder.

Bush's decision can move us forward by standing up to the flawed, murky principles of bioethics and fake science, or it can leave us where we are - facing irreversible chaos, conducting research on human cells and human beings, with no clear idea of right and wrong, human and nonhuman. It will depend on which ethics and which science he chooses to use. Best of all, he might just use his common sense and stop the confusion before it gets worse.