Thursday, February 17, 2005

Confusion on Stem Cells

Two letters in today's New York Times highlight the lack of clarity on certain issues in contemporary bioethics. In the first, David Bennett rightly takes Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to task for his attempt to enact legislation prohibiting so-called "therapeutic cloning." While the Governor supports the use of stem cells derived from existing human embryos (e.g. those discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics), he opposes the creation of embryos for research purpose, esepcially when the technology of somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapauetic cloning") is used to do so. As noted by Mr. Bennett:
The word "cloning" has clouded this issue.
Indeed, it is unfortunate that the religious right has been permitted to conflate these three distinct, yet related, questions: 1) the use of human embryonic stem cells (i.e. the destruction of human embryos for research or therapeutic purposes), 2) the in vitro creation of an embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapeutic cloning"), and 3) human reproductive cloning.

But, ignoring the inherent inconsistency in permitting the destruction of an embryo in one context but not in another, there remains one legitimate reason why a ban on the creation of cloned embryos might warrant greater protection. A cloned embryo, whether created for research or therapeutic purposes, is but a single step removed from the creation of a cloned human. That is, the implantation of a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus would result in the birth of a cloned human - with unclear consequences for its (the child's) developmental potential, health, and longevity.

Do such "slippery arguments" carry any weight? Probably, but only because we recognize that no prohibition of human reproductive cloning will ever be universally enforceable, and the birth of a human clone is virtually inevitable once the technology to create such an embryo is developed. Of course, that technology will be developed whether or not Mr. Romney permits it in Massachusetts.

The second letter writer, Christine Flowers, says:
Whether one believes that the embryo deserves all of the rights of full personhood or that it is simply the essence of humanity in its earliest form, we have an obligation to refrain from treating it as nothing more than an object of experimentation.
To be sure, human embryos are deserving of greater consideration than we might give inanimate objects; however, they are certainly not entitled to any more respect than we show the sentient beings we routinely utilize in research, and as food. The "special status" of human embryos would suggest only that they should not be used capriciously - nothing more, nothing less.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Welcome to WASH Perspectives

The Washington Area Secular Humanists is a non-profit, educational organization with seven chapters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Our purpose is to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking, to provide a forum for Humanists and others to explore Humanist principles and how they relate to all aspects of human experience, and to study the significance of Humanism throughout history. Secular Humanists are distinguished by an emphasis on scientific methods of knowing, separation of church and state, and a commitment to the pursuit of Humanist goals outside religious frameworks.

This represents our first foray into the blogsphere. We hope our readers will find our perspectives on the issues of the day enlightening and challenging. We welcome your comments and feedback, and invite you to visit our web site at to learn more about our organization.