However sceptical scientists may be about the ethics of using embryonic stem cells (ESCs) or about their therapeutic potential, few oppose the right of other researchers to do it. Even adult stem cell researchers tend to argue in favour of unrestricted freedom for scientific inquiry. So in the lead-up to a United Nations debate on cloning next month a blast from a respected Irish biotechnologist comes as a surprise. In an article in the Irish journal Studies, Dr Martin Clynes, the director of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology at Dublin City University, describes work with ESCs as “a most uncivilised and barbaric field of research” which violates fundamental human rights.
Dr Clynes first targets its scientific potential. “Few serious scientists with knowledge of the field really expect that human embryonic stem cell research will bring cures for human disease in the near future; perhaps it will, some day, but even for that, the evidence is fragmentary and there are significant safety issues, which receive little media attention. Other avenues of research, including use of adult stem cells, appear at least equally promising, although again miracle cures are, unfortunately, not just around the corner. In this situation, it makes sense to concentrate on equally (or more) promising research directions, which do not involve embryo destruction.”
Perhaps inevitably in Ireland embryo research is regarded as a religious question, but Dr Clynes insists that it is basically a human rights issue. For someone without religious belief, he argues, the use and destruction of embryos is even more unethical. “If we do not have… faith [in an afterlife], then the destruction of individual human lives at this early stage is the complete termination of their existence and of any potential which they may have had — surely the most terrible and most arrogant thing which could be inflicted on any group of our fellow humans.”
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