Where Human Ethics and Legislation Meet: Less or More Progress? – With Russell Blackford

In the spirit of valuing freedom of thought in the face of scientific advancement and expansion of human potential, how much room is there for religious debate?  What are the relevant and logical ethical arguments to consider in the face of scientific progress?  These interrelated questions underlie the continuing tension between religion, human morality, and scientific progress, a weighted point of conflict that can be traced back to early human civilizations. Human ethics walks the lines between science and religion, fused with an oscillating overlap of political involvement and influence, which continues to change human perspectives on issues over time.

In the last 20 years, this intersection of conflicting values and views has become archetypal in response the issue of human cloning. Russell Blackford, an Australian author and philosopher, has always been interested in scientific advancements but became particularly invested in the social and political elements of cloning, following the breakthrough of Dolly the Sheep in 1997. The two types of cloning historically debated are reproductive and therapeutic cloning (i.e. cloning for research purposes). While there is a general consensus amongst most sects of society that reproductive cloning should be banned, Blackford draws attention to laws-enacted and proposals that he believes unnecessarily target therapeutic cloning. The initial process of therapeutic cloning is identical to that of reproductive cloning, but development of the organism is halted at an earlier stage (blastocyst), when the original cell has divided into eight cells. These “stem cells” are capable of generating specialized cells, such as liver or brain, for use in scientific research.

The safety issues regarding reproductive cloning are widely known and protested. Animal clones have suffered from genetic and other defects, and the failure rate for reproductive cloning is high.  In a National Academies 2002 report on cloning, a majority of scientists and policy-makers spoke out against human cloning due to safety and ethical concerns. The debate as to where the ethical line should be drawn is widely debated in the U.S. and internationally. Criminalization of nuclear transportation (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SNCT)) for both reproductive and research purposes is supported by some, including former President Bush. Many others believe in criminalizing only reproductive cloning, evidence by individual states in the U.S. The varying perspectives are clearly seen amongst the different bans enacted across countries, as illustrated in this chart summarizing world human cloning policies.

In 2002, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued its statement on human cloning, in which they supported stem cell research, including the use of nuclear transplantation techniques (research or therapeutic cloning), because of the great potential health benefits.  But AAAS noted that due to “religious, ethical, and social concerns”, such research should “only proceed under close scrutiny by the federal government over both public and private sectors”.   In contrast, the United Nations in 2005 adopted the contested nonbinding “Declaration on Human Cloning”, in which is expressed the need to prohibit all forms of cloning “in as much as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.”  Many countries expressed disappointment that the declaration did not define between reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

In a free and democratic society, there exists a spectrum – on one end, the belief that placing restrictions on any medical research is counterproductive and unacceptable in a free society, and on the counter end the argument that a democratic people have the right to work together to adopt policies, including those that ban or forbid, if society believes they contribute to a “better world.” Cloning laws in the U.S. vary in the 15 states that have enacted such laws.  Federal laws have so far only applied to studies using federal funding; there is no federal law prohibiting reproductive or therapeutic cloning using private money.  The FDA began regulating reproductive cloning in 1993, and researchers conducting studies involving biological products are required to submit applications for review.

Blackford, a professed atheist and libertarian, has been struck by much of the public’s response in regards to cloning humans, viewing many of the oppositional fears as irrational and some resulting laws as overly-Draconian. Consequences for breaking these laws in some states and countries include prison terms, which Blackford believes criminalizes the idea of research and experimentation. He emphasizes that there should be carefully-drafted and implemented regulations that address real dangers based on scientific evidence and postulations. Blackford’s views rest on the principle that an emotionally reactive approach is not acceptable in light of how a liberal democratic society “should act.”

His concerns target what he sees as unacceptable developments and considerations in how we form laws, including drawing on quasi-religious concepts and emotively distorting concepts. In his new book Humanity Enhanced, with a slated release date in early 2014, Blackford examines his belief that there is a “crisis for liberal tolerance”, hoping to clearly express the argument that there is no “Frankensteinian crisis”. What society should really be concerned about in the face of scientific advancement, says Blackford, is a loss of liberal principles that protect our freedom as autonomous and intelligent human beings.

But a certain level of emotional reaction and diversified set of perspectives on human morality can serve a purpose in advancing scientific discovery.  In the July 2013 edition of the journal Science, researchers in China announced that they had found a safer and easier way to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are as versatile as embryonic stem cells. This method entails using a combination of small molecules to chemically reprogram adult tissue cells to arrive at the iPSCs. Many experts make the claim that this type of stem cell cannot be used to clone humans. In the beginning of August, Japan announced its plans to begin recruiting human patients for the world’s first clinical study using iPSCs.  These cells will be genetically identical to each patient’s cell, a method that has seemed to eliminate past problems with immune rejection of stem cells.

In an interconnected world full of perspectives, it seems logical that ultimate survival and betterment of humanity rests on compromise and innovation. When the public reacts strongly, there will undoubtedly be a mix of irrational and rational, but listening to both sides with open ears may help inform ethical decisions that drive progress further.  As noted in one of many articles on the topic, Andre Oosterlinck contends that science thrives in a “climate of freedom”, but that this does not free society from social responsibility or ethical concern.

Blackford sees the need for a more inclusive perspective that takes into account all of the objective evidence before creating and putting into effect laws that impact the integrity of a science that has the potential to heal and enhance human lives. Moratoriums and debate amongst an array of parties – in this case, religious organizations; medical centers; abortion groups; ethicists; and individuals who might benefit from stem cell therapy – has led researchers to continue experimenting with alternative ways of making stem cells, for the purposes of growing tissues and organs in a manner that preserves the integrity of potential human life forms.