Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Stem Cells, Cloning and the Conscience of a Nation

Stem Cells

Stem Cells

Brian Patrick Green

As part of the Markkula Center's yearlong series of talks on conscience, William Hurlbut of Stanford University, and a former member of the President's Council on Bioethics, came to campus to discuss the ethical issues surrounding new stem cell technologies, human cloning, and other ethical issues related to the beginning of life and research on it. Here is a brief summary of what he said.

The overarching theme of Hurlbut's talk was the role of technology, especially biotechnology, in the modern world, and the ethical impact of that technological power on our society. He stated unreservedly that stem cells and cloning are two technologies capable of changing the character of civilization.

Throughout the talk Hurlbut listed various examples of new ethical questions raised by the application of technology to humanity itself. Should we clone humans? Should we use embryonic stem cells in research? Should we specifically create new human lives in order to destroy them in research? Should we create human-animals chimeras? Should we use stem cells from aborted fetuses? Should we allow fetuses destined for abortion to be grown to a larger size before their abortion so as to better use their component parts in research? How many embryos are too many to use in research – one? One hundred thousand? Or should there be no limits?

The list goes on and on. At one point he described how he had been shown a tiny human arm that had been grown inside a mouse. The arm had been collected as a bud from an aborted fetus, then grown inside a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection), and finally harvested. His first reaction was amazement – now we can grow arms for people who need arms! And his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody's arm! This research was done 20 years ago, and since then the ethical questions have only increased.

Hurlbut gave an eloquent description of the embryo as its own entity from the start. It does not require a womb to grow, as abdominal pregnancies show, and as laboratories would like to utilize. The ideal for many stem cell research projects is to move from embryonic cells to organs, and the pressure to do this research is enormous.

Furthermore, cloning of many identical embryos gives perfect subjects for massive comparative testing of whatever can be imagined. Recently, 581 embryonic mice were cloned from the same mouse; will humans be far behind? If we allow even one embryo to be used destructively, why not many, many more? He quoted one scientist who hoped that someday 20,000 human embryos might be used with no ethical qualms, and quoted several other scientists and ethicists who endorsed this view or even more extreme ones. One bioethicist opined that there is an ethical imperative to harvest embryos and fetuses for their parts, another that a fetus was like a plant, and another that using them was morally preferable to using animals. Hurlbut did not think much of these opinions, and he hoped we didn't either.

Hurlbut ended his talk with a few questions and quotes which he has found useful for thinking about these issues. He asked, as one question, whether this is the correct path of research (the morally-questionable exploitation of nascent life) when 20,000 children die every day from basic, easily cured diseases. He then quoted Julian of Norwich and Blaise Pascal on the smallness of human life and its place in the infinity of the universe. And finally he quoted C.S. Lewis, who said that we ought always to answer all of our problems with more love and not with less.

Overall, Hurlbut raised numerous questions about where we are going as a nation and as a culture. Will we as a civilization come to depend for our own lives upon the exploitation of embryonic and fetal human life? I think he intended to raise in us some reflection on these issues, with the hope that through that reflection we might provoke to response our own consciences, and the conscience of our nation.

Brian Patrick Green is assistant director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Oct 10, 2013