Last month, I covered in Part I of this blog the ethical debates surrounding the moral status of human embryos and the potential harms to women as egg providers for cloning research. I also described how the technique of research cloning (a.k.a. somatic cell nuclear transfer) works. For today’s blog post, I want to argue that bioethicists should not leave moral debates behind because the science of stem cell research has moved on in a different direction as it is likely to leave people uneasy and frustrated because no clear way to move forward has been resolved and the debate has almost ceased to continue.
Bioethical discourse surrounding the moral status of human embryos and payment of women for eggs became stagnant upon the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs were heralded as free of ethical concern because this technique creates hESC-like cells without the creation and destruction of human embryos and it doesn’t require eggs from women. The technique aims to dedifferentiate specialized cells (e.g., skin cells) into a more pluripotent state prior to directing their differentiation into specific cell types needed for repair or regeneration. Even George W. Bush in his Eight State of the Union address stated that the iPSC breakthrough can expand the frontiers of medicine without destroying life. Although iPSCs may obviate ethical concerns surrounding moral status and harms to women, they haven’t served to replace hESC research. In fact, one study shows that hESCs and iPSCs are being used together which makes sense because hESC research serves as a control for iPSC research. In addition, there are also many other ethical challenges to iPSC research including moral complicity as well as research ethics issues including informed consent, privacy and withdrawal. I have argued along with Gillian Crozier that perhaps an ethical and political compromise in stem cell research is needed in order to permit stem cell research to be performed using eggs and embryos for a certain period until such time that non-egg and non-embryo sources for the derivation of stem cells can be used. But because iPSCs have received such hype, ethics discourse around research cloning and deriving hESCs has received far less attention in the past 4-5 years.
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