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Friday, May 27, 2011

Opposing ethicists lament embryonic stem cell hype, agree on need for moral guidance of science

An interview published in the Public Discourse, excerpted below, offers an enlightening shared perspective by two bioethicists normally at odds with one another: Robby George (RG) of Princeton University and Art Caplan (AC) of the University of Pennsylvania. Both are smarter than I, so I will let them do the explaining:
On the need for moral guidance of science
R. George
RG: "Bioethics is ethics, and ethics is about right and wrong. We know you can’t go about figuring out what’s right and wrong by scientific methods. So the norms have to come from somewhere else. And since we are a democratically constituted people, we are going to have to resolve by democratic procedures disputes about what the norms are, and how they apply in particular cases. Now that, I’m afraid, is politics. Not in some pejorative sense—rather in a good sense, in the democratic sense. Together, we deliberate, debate, and decide. So I think the juxtaposition that you mentioned is just phony. It’s not a dispute between the people “who believe in reason and evidence” and people who 'are opposed to science.'"

A. Caplan
: "You can pile up evidence to the size of the Jungfrau, but if you don’t have norms, evidence does you no good. But some out there believe that the evidence speaks for itself."
On embryonic stem cell research hype:
RG: "To me, at stake was our fidelity to the principle of the sanctity of human life. So I could not have yielded and said, “Well, that’s not important.” At the level of principle, I think probably both sides would say that it’s a big issue. But my sense is that it got blown enormously out of proportion as far as the practical significance of a policy one way or another was concerned. First, because it became useful politically. It was a way for Democrats to marshal their base against Bush in 2004. Ron Reagan, the late president’s very liberal son, to my mind just wildly hyped the potential therapeutic promise of embryonic stem cells. I think a lot of people were led to believe—and to what extent scientists were responsible for this is an interesting question—that if only the regulations were relaxed, embryonic stem-cell science would be central to our medical research and practice going into the future, and that it would massively alleviate suffering and produce cures for dreaded diseases. But it wasn’t true. Prescinding from the ethical questions, my own view is that there are scientifically interesting things that can come of embryonic stem-cell research, but that even without regulation, it wouldn’t be central. It doesn’t promise anytime soon, if ever, the amelioration of suffering or cures for dreaded diseases."
AC: "So far I don’t disagree with that too much. Embryonic stem-cell research was completely overhyped, in terms of its promise. And people knew it at the time. I tried to say so myself at different times myself, even though I support embryonic stem-cell research. But this notion that people would be out of their wheelchairs within a year if we could just get embryonic stem-cell research funded was just ludicrous. Just simply silly."

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