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Testimony of Nigel Cameron, Ph.D.

Given August 1, 2001 Before the United States Senate
Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
Hearing on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

My name is Nigel Cameron. I have worked for 20 years in bioethics, founded the journal Ethics and Medicine in 1983, and am currently involved in bioethics projects in both Europe and the US. It is a privilege to be invited to testify today.

Two great questions confront the human race at the start of the biotech century. The second, presently only on the horizons of our thinking and yet of incalculable import, will focus our growing capacity to design, determine, transform ourselves and our nature; the incremental progression toward the so-called “post-human” future. The first question is the one that confronts us today: whether we should use members of our own kind, Homo sapiens sapiens, in whatever stage of biological existence, for a purpose that is other than the good of the individual concerned; whether we should sanction the use of ourselves, in however early a form, as experimental subjects whose final end is destruction.

Let me offer four observations on our dilemma.

First, it seemed until recently to be widely agreed that human embryos should never be manufactured simply in order to be destroyed through experiment, however worthy the experiment. This principle is, for example, enshrined in the European Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights, the one international bioethics treaty; and was memorably captured some years ago in a Washington Post editorial in the ringing phrase: “The creation of human embryos specifically for research that will destroy them is unconscionable.” Yet the Jones’ Institute has brazenly announced that they have done just that. And as Charles Krauthammer’s recent pro-stem-cell research piece notes, the cloning debate has focused the same issue. The chorus of support forGreenwood-Deutsch has been fed precisely by a scientific-industrial community eager to clone and destroy embryos for scientific-industrial purposes.

The problem, of course, is one of drawing lines; the challenge of consistency. May a line truly be drawn that will permit experimentation on clinically “spare” embryos, a line that will stand forever and in the face, we may expect, of mounting commercial and clinical opportunity that argues for their creation to order? That is of course the compromise that has been floated in various quarters, most notably and seriously by Senator Frist. The level of support for embryo cloning-to-order in Greenwood-Deutsch, and now the timely “ocular proof’ of the Jones Institute, suggests the naivete of such policy hopes, since in the minds of most of those who lead the call for “spare” embryo research only there is only a modest distinction between this politic option and the Jones way. It is a distinction that falls far, far short of what the Post designated “unconscionable.” It is not, as we might put it, that we believe that further dominoes will fall; they are falling all around us. For the logic of the experimental abuse of “spare” human embryos depends ultimately on so meager a valuation of the embryo itself that their creation-to-order is inevitable. If the embryo is at base object and not in any sense subject, what is to prevent it? It is reported that one celebrity recently announced here on the Hill and in defense of embryonic stem-cell research that the embryo is of similar moral standing to a goldfish.

Secondly, I do not propose to get drawn into the extensive debate surrounding the relative merits of embryonic and other, typically adult, stem-cells. Plainly, some and perhaps all of the good things that are prophesied to be the fruit of embryonic stem-cells may be attained using adult cells or other means. It is ironic, and to be regretted, that this debate has sometimes seemed to hinge on whether adult stem-cell work is likely to be as fruitful as the embryonic kind, as if the moral question, while of some weight, could be discounted by a certain evaluation of likely relative clinical outcomes. This is a profound moral debate about what we will and will not do to our own kind, for whatever alleged benefit.

Thirdly, I believe that we are losing sight of the middle ground. By that I mean that it is by no means necessary to take the view that the early embryo is a full human person in order to be convinced that deleterious experimentation is improper. There are many possible grounds for such a view ヨ that we do not know if the embryo possesses full human dignity and should therefore be prudent; that the embryo possesses the potential to be a full human person and that such inbuilt potentiality entails profound respect, a view widely held and deeply threatened in this debate; or that membership in our species is enough to distinguish the human embryo from all other laboratory artifacts. Indeed, the widely held view that embryos should not be specially created for experimental purposes itself reveals a strong if undefined disposition to protect the embryo from abuse.

Fourthly, let me share my sense of dismay at the degree to which this debate has sometimes degenerated into an iteration and reiteration of the potential benefits of this kind of experimentation, as if those who oppose public funding for what they consider unethical research are either ignorant of or heedless toward disease and its sufferers. The celebrity argument is a sham, an attempt to short-circuit the moral assessment of means by the crass assertion of ends. It is an embarrassment to the cause of ethics in public policy.

For the question we face is distinctly ethical in character. At the heart of our conception of civilization lies the principle of restraint: that there are things we shall not do, shall never do, even though they may bring us benefit; some things we shall never do, though the heavens fall.

As we stand on the threshold of the biotech century, we could hardly confront a decision that is more onerous, since the promised benefits from this technology may be great. Yet that is of course simply to focus the moral question. If there are things that we should not do, it is easy for us to refuse to do them when they offer no benefit. When the benefit they offer is modest, the choice is still not hard. The challenge to morals and to public policy lies precisely here, where the benefits seem great. Yet it is here also that our intuitive respect for the early embryo requires us to pay a price. In a culture fixated with the satisfaction of its needs and the healing of its woes, it has become hard even to say that we shall never, for whatever benefit, experiment on our own kind? Shall we do evil, that good may come?

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