(Lewis, 1947) This sudden shift from a belief in Nurture, in the form of social conditioning, to Nature, in the form of genetics and brain physiology is the great intellectual event, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, of the late twentieth century.
(Wolfe, 2001) I begin with passages from an unlikely pair of authors because although C. Lewis and Tom Wolfe are somewhat distant in time, certainly different in temperament, and extravagantly different in personal style, they share an imaginative capacity to envision the possible consequences of modern technology.
Given Catholic teaching that the embryo must be treated as a person from conception, no experimentation on the embryo can be allowed that would not also be allowed on infants or children.
Hence, the Catholic church treats stem cell research as it has treated previous issues involving the destruction of human embryos; it is condemned as morally abhorrent.
Indeed, it is probably best to place the initial skirmishes over stem cell research in the context of moral debates about human embryo research generally.
In fact, it is worth noting that the report of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel (HERP), published in 1994, explicitly identified the isolation of human embryonic stem cells as one of thirteen areas of research with preimplantation embryos that might yield significant scientific benefit and that should be considered for federal funding (See NIH HERP, 1994, ch. Although the recommendations of the HERP were never implemented, the fact that a high-profile panel reviewed ex utero preimplantation human embryo research and explicitly endorsed stem cell research, meant that the panel report would affect the policy debate about stem cell research, even though its recommendation that the derivation and use of stem cells be federally funded was not adopted.The Moral Status of the Embryo There is little doubt that public reflection on stem cell research in the United States has been affected by the extraordinarily volatile cross-currents of the abortion debate.Although I will indicate below several reasons why framing the stem cell debate as a subset of that on abortion is problematic, nevertheless, in its current form, stem cell research is debated in terms dictated by the abortion controversy, and that has meant that questions about the status of the embryo have been particularly prominent.I believe that a broader perspective is needed in the ongoing public debate over stem cell research and that such a perspective is in fact beginning to emerge.This is not to say that the sort of traditional analysis that has framed much of the debate on stem cells, analysis that involves issues of embryo status, autonomy, and informed consent, for example, is unhelpful; far from it.Moreover, the fact that the HERP defended its support of stem cell research by stressing the developmental capacity of the embryo also shaped the trajectory of much subsequent support for this work, because insisting on respect for the embryo but denying its personhood meant explaining how one could respect the embryo while nevertheless destroying it.Daniel Callahan, for example, posed this problem very strongly in response to the HERP report.If “profound respect” for the embryo is compatible with destroying it, he asked, “What in the world can that kind of respect mean?” It is, he says, “an odd form of esteem―at once high-minded and altogether lethal” (Callahan, 1995).Nevertheless, traditional moral analysis of stem cell research is nicely complemented by a consideration of the “big picture” questions that Lewis and Wolfe both wish to press.This report will therefore seek to draw attention to the literature on stem cell research that attends both to the narrow and to the expansive bioethical issues raised by this work.