April 21, 2024


What should stem cell scientists do when their moral views clash with society’s? First, set up an eminent persons committee and call for consultation and communication. This is what is being proposed by the so-called Hinxton Group of about 50 scientists, ethicists, journal editors, lawyers and policy makers, in an article in the leading journal Science. These include John Harris, of Manchester University, and Julian Savulescu, of Oxford University, both regarded as radical utilitarians.

Without too much optimism, the group calls for uniform international standards in the regulation of stem cell research. More achievable, however, is stopping “extraterritorial jurisdiction” over researchers, the ability of a government to prosecute citizens for crimes” which may be legal in another country. They insist that scientists who do work which is banned at home should not be punished if they do it abroad. This is a real issue for German scientists, because the extraterritorial reach of the law is written into Germany’s constitution.

In a thoughtful commentary, one of the authors, bioethicist Ruth Faden, of Johns Hopkins University, comments that scientists should welcome societal oversight of their research. On the other hand, they “should continuously make their case to society by appealing to public moral reasons that are accessible to all.” This, she says, is hard work for which few scientists are prepared.