- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

A number of scientists eager to get on with their research on human embryos are not happy with the Bush administration. They say it’s not giving them the ethical guidance they need to continue their experiments. So they’re going to figure out this ethics thing themselves.

To quote a Page One story in the New York Times last week: “Citing a lack of leadership by the federal government, the National Academy of Sciences proposed ethical guidelines yesterday for research with human embryonic stem cells.”

The good news is that the scientists realize they need some ethical guidance. The bad news is… well, where to start?

Is it the assumption scientists should look to government to supply their ethics, just as they would for any other government grant?

Is it the assumption that, if only the government or some select committee of scientists would declare research on human embryos ethical, it would be?

What these scientists seem to want from government may be beyond even Washington’s ample power to confuse the issue: an ethical defense of the unethical.

Because they’re asking for a code of ethics to justify first violating, then experimenting with and finally destroying human life. All within two weeks. That is what would happen if the Academy’s own, suggested guidelines were adopted:

Experimenters would be allowed to select a human egg, remove its nucleus, replace it with the nucleus of an adult donor cell, and then, after it has served as a subject of research, destroy it. In short, cloning. But without letting the clone develop beyond two weeks’ gestation.

Why two weeks? Because at about two weeks one can discern in the embryo formation of the central nervous system. That’s the point at which the Academy recognizes the embryo as human, or at least human enough that not even its distinguished members would want to experiment on it. But until then, its use for research purposes would be allowed.

Not the least dubious of the scientists’ assumptions is that the two-week limit on such experimentation could be effectively enforced, considering the natural curiosity of scientists and the growing demand for designer babies. In short, these guidelines could have more unintended consequences than your average Act of Congress.

Reading about the academicians’ proposal, I suddenly saw before me the clear, steady, straight gaze of the lady who taught me biology, comparative anatomy and genetics, at a small Southern college in what now seems another age. Mary Warters of Louisiana’s Centenary College was, without doubt, the finest teacher I ever had — in any subject.

Even in that pre-Double Helix age, when classical genetics still ruled, Dr. Warters was both a world class experimenter in the summers (her specialty was Drosophila melanogaster — that’s fruit flies to the rest of us) while she spent the academic year turning out entering students for the LSU and Tulane medical schools. A small woman, there was no doubting her stature, or her no-nonsense judgment. She would die in 1995 at age 93, after 44 years teaching at Centenary and attaining legendary status in the eyes of all privileged to have been her students.

I wondered what Mary Warters would have thought if someone had told her human life, or at least the only kind we need respect, didn’t begin until two weeks after the zygote is formed, when suddenly, by arbitrary decree, the creature — Zap — gets a central nervous system or beginnings thereof. Like in a comic book, or in one of those schematic, stage-by-stage drawings in a biology text, which were always neater than any real specimen you were assigned in the lab. (I soon realized how often Mother Nature was mistaken; she never quite followed the illustrator’s exact instructions.)

Human development isn’t so simple, either, or so simply divided. It is one continuum from first to last, from the first microscopic set of completed chromosomes within the cell to the last breath of a dying old man surrounded by family in a hospice. It is all part of the same journey, every bit of it uniquely human. I can imagine Mary Warters’ expression if some oh-so-scientific delegation had tried to tell her otherwise.

Dr. Warters’ response would probably have been much like the one she once gave a hapless freshman in her class — a look compounded of sadness and pity but not without amusement, when she had asked him where the human taste buds were located, and, hopelessly confused as ever, he had guessed… the lips? It’s a look I still haven’t forgotten.

If the National Academy of Scientists wants to choose an exact two weeks as the boundary between a clump of cells fit for experimentation and humanity … well, one can fully understand why it would be in the market for ethical guidance.)

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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