Remarks on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

*The German version of the article.

Andrea Fischer is a member of the German Bundestag for the Alliance 90/The Greens fraction. From October 1998 until January 2001, she was also Federal Minister for Health. For Science's Next Wave, she outlines some basic positions for the Bundestag's fraction in the gene technology debate.

In the past few weeks, the debate about genetic research in Germany has focused on the issue of the use of embryonic stem cells for research. Reports about scientific success have not been the only contributions to the discussion. The U.S. Congress's decision to prohibit the cloning of human beings is also relevant here.

The discussion is not intended to delay research or developments in the field of genetics. Not only have successes been achieved in the life sciences, genetics, and biotechnology--they are also extensively supported by public funds. The only field that is controversial is research using stem cells that are derived from human embryos. This is a relatively small field in the area of stem cell research. I would like to point this out as a contrast to those who argue that there is a straight choice between no cure or allowing stem cell research.

I think that the debate gives rise to questions on at least three different levels: 1. on the research level: Why should one prefer to focus on methods that have only been tested on animals, and which have already caused tremendous problems?, 2. on the ethical level: Is mankind allowed to do everything it could do?, and 3. on the philosophical level: Is the prospect of a cure the final word in this?

We should not only question the construct of the "ethics of curing," as I will show, but we also need to look critically at reservations toward research on embryonic stem cells as they are expressed in our society. Apprehensive politicians who want to hinder research toward a cure with decisions based on yesterday's moral attitudes are not the only voices in the debate. Neither are the representatives from the medical council or the churches, moral philosophers or the handicapped. Instead, the most substantial criticism is expressed within the researchers' own ranks. The scientific community does not agree unanimously about their own successes, despite what the media may suggest.

Putting aside the euphoria, how embryonic stem cells will behave when implanted into other tissue is not yet clear at all. Recently, heart cells have been grown from embryonic stem cells in Israel. But it is not known whether these cells will continue to be heart cells--or if they might mutate into metastases. These problems of tissue rejection do not exist with adult stem cells.

On the other hand, the results from research with adult stem cells offer a lot of hope. In the U.S., as well as in Germany and the UK, first results with adult stem cells suggest that they are at least equivalent to embryonic stem cells.

Given these facts, I do not understand why we should prefer an ethically and scientifically doubtful method like embryonic stem cell research. Independently of the technical possibilities, we have to respect the ethical standpoint that the use of embryonic stem cells means the use of human life for other purposes. Researchers will not only work with one line of stem cells, as Professor Ganten of the Max Delbrück Center has pointed out recently. Obtaining embryonic stem cells through cloning would mean breeding human life specifically for destruction. This gives rise to new problems. Cloning requires egg cells. Women would have to donate these egg cells, requiring a risky medical procedure that does not benefit them or their own health.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about an argument that is important to most people in this debate: The argument of an "ethics of curing." Especially seriously ill or handicapped people are asking (and are asking us) whether it is not morally correct to allow disputed methods if they could save lives? I can understand that the personal situation leads to this question. But I also think that personal involvement is a perspective--no matter in which discussion--that is not of general value and should not be the basis for decision making. This does not mean that due to this reason, these questions cannot be asked and these hopes cannot be anticipated. But: Science cannot keep up with the hopes it is creating week by week. This is the deciding issue. Politics, asking critical questions, does not have a reason to delay help for human beings. This would be absurd. But an objective of politics is to find general rules for living together, compromises and ways that we can all accept. This has been solved in an exemplary manner in the issue of § 218 (abortion section in the German Criminal Code), as the current debate shows.

Finding general rules sometimes also means highlighting unrealistic promises made by researchers, maybe also in order to protect people from too many unnecessary medical procedures. This is mandatory in the issue of protecting a third person's life who is only being created to guarantee other people's well-being. If we ignore this basic value, we would revoke a fundamental consensus in society. The problem we are facing is that we are not dealing with abstract models--as is usually the case in research. The smallest advance in genetics affects our most tangible and concrete being--human beings as themselves.

Even if we accept the premise of cure, we have not found a valid standard to make our ethical decisions. But if we proceed to use human life for other purposes, it will be hard to find any standards of limitation. What the current debate proves is that every new step that had been declared as the last step has lead to a further step after it has been legitimised by sufficient habituation. We are not dealing with a breach in the dyke, but rather with a gradual shifting of the dyke until it dissolves in the ocean.

* Editor's note: Agree or disagree with the author? Discuss your views in our Ethics and Science forum!

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