A Conversation on Bioethics with Dr. Hurlbut

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

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.