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A Conversation on Bioethics with Dr. Hurlbut Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 21 October 2010

Last year, when President Obama announced his intention to reverse Bush policy and provide federal support for embryo-destructive research, he claimed to be “restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.” Charles Krauthammer, a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, called Obama’s decision “morally unserious in the extreme.” (See summary by Robert George). In August, a federal judge ruled that Obama’s executive order violates standing law banning taxpayer money for embryo-destructive experimentation. That ruling is under appeal.

I recently had the chance to discuss these matters with Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, another former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. He has done pioneering research that does not require the creation or destruction of human embryos. His original breakthrough, “Altered Nuclear Transfer,” has served as a bridge for other promising approaches. It’s a rare combination of ingenuity and unwavering commitment to ethics – the kind that respects human life and dignity at all stages of development and conditions of dependency.  

Hurlbut was one of several distinguished signatories of Human Embryos in the Age of Obama, a statement calling for a permanent reversal of Obama’s policies, “the naked politicization of science in the very worst sense.” (Emphasis in the original)

I spoke recently with Hurlbut:

How has this administration’s approach contrasted with your own?
 
The most frustrating thing is that President Obama acted as though there were no moral issues involved. He depicted objections to such research as ideological and anti-scientific. But this ignores the moral nature of the issue. Saying these issues are above your “pay grade” is not a pass to dismiss them entirely, and call that “science.”
 
I have always been pro-active, and enthusiastic about the prospect of breakthrough treatments. But I also believe we shouldn’t be using embryos as mere raw materials for projects of any kind, no matter how scientifically promising. This is not “anti-medical,” it is pro-human. Otherwise, in our quest for cures we degrade the humanity we are trying to heal. The goal of treatment is laudable, but we need a moral means of pursuing it. I believe that the “Lord of life” would not deny us a moral way of discovering and developing means for the healing of life. This conviction has guided the approach I have taken. Although the debates can get difficult, we all need to calmly seek constructive dialogue, and engage the moral problems seriously and civilly.

 
Dr. William Hurlbut
 
Deep down, what is driving the scientific community to champion these policies? Money? Ideology?
 
For the most part, scientists have very good intentions; they are motivated by curiosity and the desire for scientific knowledge, which can be used to benefit mankind. But it is also true that many scientists who support embryo-destructive research are in fact adherents of scientific materialism. They tend to favor the instrumental use of human embryos in research, and to justify this by the practical benefits of these policies. But I believe this approach is unwise both for moral reasons and practical reasons. It undercuts the sense of noble purpose that is essential for public support of biomedical science. Beyond that, there is the temptation to attempt to manipulate human life for short-term benefit – cloning, designer babies, and so forth, or the presumed “greater good” of somehow producing a better species. But there is a saying: “Mother Nature always bats in the bottom of the ninth” – and you end up changing things in ways you didn’t intend to. 
 
But even the solid Christian evangelical Dr. Francis Collins (who oversaw the mapping of the human genome and is director of the NIH), supports Obama’s embryo-destructive research policies. Cardinal Ratzinger suggested in 2004 that intellectual currents today threaten to reduce our ethical sense to “traffic rules for human behavior, which can be discarded or maintained according to their usefulness.” If “all that remains is the calculus of consequences, won’t a new ruling class, then, take hold of the keys to human existence and become the managers of mankind?”
 
There is genuine insight in the pope’s words. It is indeed something we should be concerned about. Sooner or later, the boundaries get pushed beyond where even many scientists would feel comfortable. I fear that we are opening the floodgates to further callousness towards human life. I’d also add that this is an area in which Catholic moral theology has much to contribute. It is grounded in the deep reflections of faith as well as centuries of historical experience and has been a real service to society.
 
Your recent statement in defense of human embryos eloquently appeals to the equality of all human beings. A country that tolerates the intentional destruction of embryos cannot, at root, claim to respect the dignity of every human being. Many who support the destruction of human embryos for research nonetheless invoke “equality” when it comes to other issues – from economic or tax policy to gay “marriage.” Equal protection from intentional destruction seems like a slam dunk. Why doesn’t that get the same kind of traction?
 
I can understand why some people might think that a very early embryo should not be classified as a human being. It does not have the visible human signs that evoke our natural moral sentiments – no face or hands, or even a beating heart (until several weeks of gestation). But the scientific evidence supports the continuity of life across all stages of development. As a living being, an embryo has an intrinsic unity and indwelling immanent powers for its own program of development; given the minimal protection and nurture, it develops the signs we all recognize in human persons. We all started this way – Nobel laureates were once embryos. To maintain that embryos are not human beings is to prejudice some phases of life over others – and it’s not right. Perhaps with our new tools of following fetal development (such as 4-D sonograms) we will, as a culture, come to recognize this. 
 
Some companies are pursuing therapies derived from embryonic stem cells with private funds. Why, then, is there such a fuss over allocating public funds?
 
Our national political conflict is over federal funding; current laws preclude the use of taxpayer dollars for research projects that involve the destruction or even endangerment of human embryos. Promoters of federal funding are advancing a cause that would violate the consciences of millions of their fellow citizens. Such an approach would lend institutional support to the instrumental use of human life. It would be a collective statement, a national endorsement of the enterprise, which a great many people find morally repugnant. We need to find a constructive way forward, one that does not divide us further, but sustains our sense of national identity as a noble and progressive society. I believe that is possible if we will just try.    
 

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin D. Irala, M.D., the author of
Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, available now from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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written by Bob S, October 22, 2010
It is gratifying to hear scientific pioneers like Dr. Hurlbut humbly seeking God's will first and his confession of faith that the "Lord of Life" will provide us solutions in accord with His will. To the last questions on the "why" of equal protection and public funding, let me add to Dr. Hurlbut's response. Any attempt to disqualify an act of fetal destruction consitutes, from a pro-abortion perspective, a tacit agreement that even nascent human life is worthy of protection. In the minds of most, the law has moral authority. As in the logic-defying defense of partial-birth abortion, the promoters of embryo-detructive research just can't allow the government to protect life lest people get the impression that this life has intrinsic worth.
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written by Leah, October 24, 2010
I just read that around 70% of Catholics approve of stem cell research
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written by Ria, October 25, 2010
Leah, you need to recall that there are two general types of stem cell research: adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research. Only the second is morally questionable.

It is very reassuring to read such a clear and cogent interview of a scientist who exhibits a clear understanding of moral thought and the correct role of the scientist in society. As a scientist myself, I too often find a materialist perspective is the most prominent philosophy among my peers. The materialist philosophy leads to a number of questionable behaviors that are not limited to support for embryonic stem cell research, but also in rare cases can include questionable professional behavior. After all, if one believes that the greatest good justifies a decision, one can justify almost anything depending on how "greatest good" is defined (since most materialists tend to be act utilitarians, if they've even considered ethical modes of thought at all).
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written by debby, October 25, 2010
thank you very much dear doctor for this article and the time you took to explain these grave issues. i wonder if St. John the Baptist isn't in your case praying, "More like him, less like the other guys...."
we need more men and women minded like you (Christ-like-minded)- grounded in the One Truth first and then moving out into the vastness He created. i pray for you and those in your profession. only God and Love for Love can keep all of us humble before Him and yet longing for more of Him through discovery of the world He has made. thank you. God keep you in the palm of His hand, in the deepest center of His most Sacred Heart.
pray that my daughters, who both want to be doctors, follow Him. thank you.

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