Caplan debates stem cells—with himself

Art Caplan, arguably the most quoted bioethicist in the country, tackled the timely subject, “Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Science or Ethics?” in a talk sponsored by the Penn Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the Newman Center late last month. Caplan is the director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics. Here are excerpts from his talk:

You’ll hear a lot about the moment of conception, but actually there is no moment of conception. There’s a process by which genes mix and then make a whole and where you draw the line about what the moment of conception is, is actually, from a scientific point of view, somewhat arbitrary. How close do the genes have to get, when do they recombine, how do you say they have formed a new genome?

It seems to me, if you really looked at the stem cell debate, you get a couple of moral issues to contend with.

Is it clear that there is a bright line when life begins? It’s not so clear to me because of cloning, the possibility of recombining genes, the possibility that, in fact, you get a lot of unviable embryos.

Is there a prohibition that we should not take advantage of morally suspect or even evil things, if we can regain something of value? Again, not clear to me; we do it all the time. We have many areas where we make compromises about how to deal with tragic things.

Can we actually say more about why wouldn’t we want to make embryos, create them, access them? I don’t think it’s a good thing to start a life just to kill it. Let me simply say, there are a lot more embryos that are going to be destroyed in the name of making babies at in vitro fertilization clinics than you need for stem cell research. You can do a lot of stem cell research with 200 or 300 embryos. There are 200 to 300 embryos destroyed every month at the in vitro fertilization clinics.

Real needs vs. theoretical life

It’s hard for me, even if I respect a human embryo, to think of them as different than a piece of dirt or a rock, or some inanimate object, but I do. My moral hierarchy would say that there’s something more here in terms of possibility and potential that commands moral respect. If I say that, I am still stuck and am haunted by those situations where somebody says, How much respect will you give if you also have someone confined in a wheelchair or dying of a disease?

I’m not ready yet to say that I’m going to give more moral respect to potential and possibility than I am to actuality. I see in embryos a lot of possibility and a lot of potential, much of which is not filled for the reasons I’ve tried to describe to you.

The real people with real needs — that’s what drives me toward saying that some amount of embryo research ought to be pursued.

At the end of the day will it fix them, cure them, make them walk, make them regain their memory, make them think correctly? I have no idea, and anyone who tells you that they do know that this will work is not telling you the truth. All I can tell you is there’s the possibility of the other end.

Will it provide cures?

If you will, there’s two kinds of potential, the possibility, that you’re weighing. I think about the hope of finding cures for people as a reason to go into stem cell research. At the same time there’s no evidence that any of it will produce anything for anybody ever; we don’t know. We just identified stem cells three years ago.

Anybody who says they’re going to see Christopher Reeves running down the street next week is just engaged in a fantasy. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. It won’t be next week, it won’t be next year, it won’t be in five years. I can promise you that.

What you’re talking about is, do you want to go down a course of research that might be useful, but there’s some chance that it won’t?

Last story in sequence
Front page for this issue
Next story in sequence

Originally published on October 11, 2001