Scientists largely agree that stem cells may hold a key to the treatment, and even cure, of many serious medical conditions. But while the use of adult stem cells is widely accepted, many religious groups and others oppose stem cell research involving the use and destruction of human embryos. At the same time, many scientists say that embryonic stem cell research is necessary to unlock the promise of stem cell therapies since embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the human body.  

In late 2007, researchers in the United States and Japan succeeded in reprogramming adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. The new development offers the possibility that the controversy over the use of embryos could end. But many scientists and supporters of embryonic stem cell research caution that this advance has not eliminated the need for embryos, at least for the time being.

Recently, the Pew Forum sat down with Yuval Levin, author of Tyranny of Reason, to discuss the ethical and moral grounds for opposing embryonic stem cell research. Previously, Levin was the executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Currently, he is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he also directs the center’s Bioethics and American Democracy program.

A counterargument  explaining the case for embryonic stem cell research is made by Jonathan Moreno, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow and Director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program, Ethics and Public Policy Center

David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Question & Answer

Recently, researchers in the United States and Japan successfully turned human skin cells into cells that behave like embryonic stem cells. There has been some discussion that this advance makes the moral and ethical debate over embryonic stem cells moot. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

I think it’s going to take a while for the ethical debate to catch up with the science. The scientific community has reacted very positively to this advancement, which was made in November 2007. There have been many additional scientific studies published on the topic since then, and it appears increasingly likely that the cells produced using skin cells are the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. So I think that, in time, this probably will be the final chapter of this particular debate about embryonic stem cells, but I don’t think we’re at the end of it quite yet.

Do you agree with Professor James Thomson, who led the American research team that made this breakthrough, when he maintains that this advance does not, for the time being, abrogate the need for embryonic stem cell research?

Part of his argument for continuing to use embryonic stem cells was backward-looking to make the point that researchers wouldn’t have been able to develop this technique if they hadn’t been doing embryonic stem cell research. I think that’s true, although in a certain way it actually vindicates the logic of President Bush’s stem cell policy, which is to allow some work to be done – without creating an incentive for the destruction of further embryos – to advance the basic science in these kinds of directions.

Thomson also argued that there will still be a need to use embryos in the future. I think that’s also a fair argument in the sense that there are always interesting things to learn from different kinds of experiments, but it doesn’t address the ethical issues surrounding the debate. If there were no ethical concerns, then certainly the new development wouldn’t mean embryonic research would become totally useless. But given that there are concerns, the case for destroying embryos does become a lot weaker. For some people, myself included, the ethical concerns are matters of principle and don’t change with new developments.

But for a lot of people, the stem cell debate has always been a matter of balance. People are aware that there are ethical concerns and that there is enormous scientific promise. Now the debate is: Given the ethical questions at stake, is the scientific promise sufficient to make us put the ethical concerns aside and support the research? I think that balance has changed because of this advance, and having an alternative to embryonic stem cell research that achieves the same result will obviously affect the way people think about the ethics of this issue.

That doesn’t mean the scientists no longer have any use for embryonic stem cells or even that they won’t have any use for them. But I do think it means that people are going to change the way they reason about the balance between science and ethics because of this advance.

I know that you believe that human embryos have intrinsic worth. Do you believe that they have the same intrinsic worth as a five-year-old child or a 50-year-old man?

The question of intrinsic worth is complicated. I don’t think it is right to try to determine an embryo’s intrinsic worth by debating when human life begins. The question of when life begins is a biological question, and the answer actually is fairly straightforward: The life of an organism begins at conception. The ethical question, however, is not about when a life begins but whether every life is equal, and that’s a very different question.

I think that the embryonic stem cell debate is ultimately about the question of human equality. The United States has had one answer to that question written in its “birth certificate” – the Declaration of Independence – which states that “all men are created equal.” I think that examining this principle of human equality provides the right answer to this debate, but it is not a simple answer. Human equality doesn’t mean that every person is the same or that every person can even be valued in the same way on every scale. What it means is that our common humanity is something that we all share. And what that means, in turn, is that we can’t treat a human being in certain ways that we might non-human beings.

The protection of human life comes first. And to the extent that the debate is about whether it is acceptable to destroy a living human being for the purpose of science – even for the purpose of helping other human beings – I think that in that sense, the embryo is our equal. That doesn’t mean that I would think of an embryo in the same way that I would think of a three-year-old child, but I would reject a technique that uses either of them for scientific experimentation.

So in other words, even though you would grieve the death of a 50-year-old man more than a five-day-old embryo, on at least the most basic level you believe that they both have the same right to life.

Yes, that’s right. And right to life derives from human equality. The right to life is, in a way, drawn out of the political vocabulary of the Declaration of Independence. And so, to my mind, the argument at the heart of the embryonic stem cell debate is the argument about human equality.

Recently in The New Republic magazine, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that conservative bioethicists like yourself consistently predict the worst when looking at developments in biotechnology. He went on to say that had there been a president’s council on cyber-ethics in the 1960s, “no doubt it would have decried the threat of the Internet since it would inexorably lead to 1984 or computers ‘taking over’ like HAL in 2001.” How do you respond to this suggestion that there always seems to be this sort of chorus of doomsayers every time something new comes along?

To my mind, biotechnology is fundamentally different from past developments in technology because it’s directed to the human person. From the beginning of the scientific revolution, science and technology have tried to allow us to manipulate and shape the world around us for the benefit of man. Now that we’re beginning to manipulate and shape man, the question is: For the benefit of what? In some cases that’s easy to see. Obviously curing disease is more of an “old-fashioned” scientific pursuit. But there are newer scientific developments, such as certain types of human enhancement technologies that raise very complicated questions of how we should judge the ends and the means of technological advancements. That being said, Pinker has a point, in a larger sense – that judging the risks of new technologies is very difficult. In general, I think we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to our ability to use new technologies. I don’t think that we should assume that the worst will happen. But there are specific instances, which are few but very important, when we do need to be cautious.

Let’s shift gears to a question about religion and faith. Obviously there are people of faith on both sides of this debate. In fact, there are conservatives – traditional social conservatives, such as Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah – who support embryonic stem cell research. But could you explain how the Judeo-Christian and Western moral ethic informs your views on this issue and why you think that God is ultimately on your side?

Well, I don’t know that I think that. My approach to this is not religious. I’m not a particularly religious person and I come at this from more of a liberal democratic concern for human equality and the foundations of our society. That being said, those foundations are not utterly secular, and my understanding of them is not utterly secular. I think that to believe in human equality you do have to have some sense of a transcendent standard by which to make that judgment. In other words, when we talk about equality, what do we mean? Equal in relation to what?

Some people have certainly tried to make a purely secular liberal argument for human equality. While I think it’s very hard to ground a genuine, deep belief in human equality in a worldview that sees nothing above the material, I don’t think that that belief depends on specific theological commitments. To my mind, it’s an American belief more than it is a religious belief.

Certainly I think that President Bush’s commitment to human equality has a lot to do with a particular Christian sense of human worth and human value. But I don’t think that it’s necessary to ground yourself in a particular theological or sectarian preference. I think that this is really about whether we believe in a liberal society, which comes from a belief in human equality. The American left, which for the most part is on the other side of this debate from where I am, has always been the champion of human equality, and I think that it’s a question that they have to really think about.

The Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press have done polling on this issue over the last six or seven years and have found that Americans generally favor embryonic stem cell research. Why do you think this has happened, and what do you think this trend indicates?

That’s an interesting question. We actually did a poll here at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in February on a similar question, and the lesson I drew from that, and from some other polling that’s been done, is that on the stem cell debate, people are just very confused about the facts, and the trend lines have generally followed the sense that cures are coming. In the end, the issue has been misrepresented as a choice between cures and Christianity, and people increasingly think that curing people like Christopher Reeve is just as much of a human good as protecting an embryo that they can’t even imagine.

But when you dig down into people’s views about stem cell research, you find a great deal of confusion, and when you put the questions in ethical terms, you find small majorities opposing it. When you put the question in medical terms, you find, I think, somewhat larger majorities supporting it. In our poll, we asked the same people a series of questions that basically put the same issue in several different ways, and their responses are total opposites of one another. The fact that the same people come out on the opposite sides of the same issue when it’s put in different ways suggests to me that the issue is very hard to understand – which it is.

Frequently one hears that, ultimately, you can’t stop science or “progress” and that ethical, moral and religious objections inevitably will fall by the wayside when there are clear material gains to be made. Do you think that’s the most likely scenario in this case, assuming the scientific community continues to see a need for embryonic stem cell research?

Well, that’s the big assumption, right? To my mind, the aim of people such as myself has always been to find ways of doing the science without violating the ethics rather than to force a choice between the science and the ethics. If we force that choice, I think it’s more likely that the country would choose science over ethics, and that’s exactly why we have to avoid the choice. I don’t think we should be overconfident in our ability to persuade people to pass up a material benefit for an ethical principle, although I hope that can be done in the stem cell research debate. It certainly has been done in some instances when the principle was more evident and more obvious – such as imposing limits on human subject research.

Again, the aim from my point of view – and from a lot of people on my side of this argument – has been to find ways to advance the science without violating the ethics. That’s the logic of President Bush’s stem cell policy; that’s why people have been pushing for alternatives; that’s why they’re encouraging the development of these latest alternatives – to avoid the choice, not to force the choice. I think that’s the best thing for the country, from everybody’s point of view. You don’t want a situation where you’ve got sort of red-state medicine and blue-state medicine and people believe that the treatment their hospital is giving them is obtained in unethical ways. That would begin to break up the practice of medicine and to affect our attitudes about science – which on the whole has done a tremendous amount of good for society. So I think what everybody should aim for is finding a way to end this potentially very damaging debate rather than force a choice.

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.