One overlooked proposal in President Bush’s State of the Union speech on January 31 centred on cloning: "I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our Creator — and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Sandwiched as it was between a farewell to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and a call for higher ethical standards in Congress, it was overshadowed by the war in Iraq and America’s addiction to oil.
But now three members of the President’s Council on Bioethics have sparred in the media over Bush’s defence of embryos. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth, suggested that Bush’s "unwavering opposition" to embryonic stem cell research might have indirectly been responsible for Hwangate. It might have kindled too much ambition in the Koreans and too much eagerness in the editors of scientific journals.
He also described the President’s remarks as "a serious mischaracterisation" of embryo research. In his view, an embryo is better described as "a bunch of molecules in a lab" or "that thing in a Petri dish". In no way is an embryo "a beautifully nurtured and loved human who has been shaped by a lifetime of experiences and discovery".
Shortly thereafter ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, of Valparaiso University and Robert George, of Princeton, used the National Review, an influential conservative magazine, as a platform to scold Gazzaniga for a lack of "rigour and seriousness". In their eyes, many American scientists have abandoned scientific objectivity and have been shamelessly partisan in their advocacy of embryo research. Hwangate had exposed this political commitment and forced them to blame Bush instead of "their own agendas or hubris".
They also asked how Gazzaniga could account for the humanity of newborns, [of] those afflicted by retardation, and [of] those suffering from dementia", since they do not have memories, hopes and loves that make them human.
Clearly there is a nearly unbridgeable gap on some fundamental issues amongst bioethicists and scientists. The editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, Glen McGee, fumed on his blog that this stupid, patronising nonsense employed by the neocons" on the bioethics council was merely "pro-life on stilts". The chance of a bioethical d?tente looks decidedly embryonic.
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