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- Framing the Future: Embryonic Stem Cells, Ethics and the Emerging Era of Developmental Biology


Throughout the 20th century, the great advances in molecular and cell biology were accomplished largely by studying the biochemical parts apart from their natural place within the whole organism. This approach, which has culminated in the sequencing of the human genome, has now led us back to the study of whole living beings.

As we enter the era of developmental biology, there will be many moral dilemmas; the current conflict over ESCs is just the first of a series of difficult controversies over the experimental use of emerging life that will require that we define with clarity and precision exactly the boundaries we seek to defend. Similar concerns were raised over the past century as we came to understand that human parts such as cell, tissues and organs are not themselves alive in a moral sense. Now, as we deepen our scientific inquiry into developmental biology, we may once again find a way forward by studying parts apart from their place within the living whole. This will be a more difficult challenge, however, both technically and conceptually; our natural intuitions identify the dynamics of developing systems with the moral meaning of living beings.

With the exploration of ANT we open a realm of intellectual dialogue and creative scientific investigation in the search for a solution to our current impasse over the procurement of ESCs. Such a solution must be grounded in deep ethical reflection and careful preliminary studies with animal cells. The incommensurate good of human life, and the corresponding danger of its instrumental use means that the highest levels of caution must prevail as we proceed forward with this project. We must initiate the cooperative dialogue that is essential to frame the moral principles that can at once defend human dignity and promote the fullest prospects for scientific progress and its medical applications. The constructive engagement of science and moral philosophy is a crucial component of this dialogue. The very preservation of our humanity may depend on it.

*Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research. Office of the Press Secretary August 9, 2001. 

{dagger}In the account that follows I speak from the perspective of my own experience and not for the Council as a whole. 

{ddagger}"Because the ANT product lacks essential properties of the fertilized embryo, it is not justified to call it an ‘embryo.’" Jaenisch, Rudolf. ‘Testimony of Rudolf Jaenisch, M.D., Hearing on’ An Alternative Method for Obtaining Embryonic Stem Cells', Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education', United States Senate Oct. 19, 2005. 

Received December 13, 2005; accepted December 14, 2005.

Correspondence: William B. Hurlbut, M.D., Stanford University Medical Center, Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, 371 Serra Mall, Room 345, Gilbert Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-5020; e-mail: [email protected]

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