The President's Council on Bioethics click here to skip navigation

 

Friday, April 2, 2004

Public Comment

MR. DOERFLINGER:  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I would like to comment on the Council's new report.  A formal reaction was issued yesterday by the Catholic Bishops' Conference, and I hope I might make that available to Council members and place copies on the table outside for anyone else who might be interested.

Time is short and there's really no need to discuss the many matters on which we agree.  So let me go straight to the two issues on which I continue to disagree with the Council, even with some members who share my moral convictions about the human embryo.

First, on a limit of ten to 14 days for embryo research.  Clearly it is not inherently immoral to support a partial or incremental ban on an evil, and I reflected on this at some length in my June 12th testimony to the Council.  At the same time, one must always ask what this is an increment towards and what the likely effect of a particular proposal is.

The facts as I see them are these.

First, if passed now such a limit would prohibit little if any embryo research now going on.  All attention is focused on the stem cells to be obtained from blastocysts 4 to 6 days old, and this is what cries out for response now.

The 14 day limit, in particular, would ban only research that is now physically impossible, because no one can keep an embryo alive in a laboratory past 14 days. 

There is a real and present threat arising from laws like the one in New Jersey, which seem to allow cloned embryos to be placed in women's wombs and farmed for their fetal cells -- the only way now possible for bringing embryos past 14 days.  But that problem is addressed in a separate Council recommendation which I believe we all support.

What, then, will be the direct and immediate impact of this proposal?  It seems to me it would be twofold.

First, contrary to at least some Council members' intentions, it may well teach the message to many Americans that there is some qualitative, morally significant difference between embryos before that point and embryos after it.  That danger is very real because many people once held this view regarding the appearance of the so-called primitive streak at 14 days, which was thought to mark the difference between the pre-embryo and the embryo.

As I documented in the appendix to my June 12th testimony, that view is now discredited among most embryologists, but still promoted by many who find it politically useful.  It would be tragic to reinforce that fallacy, to teach the American people bad science that may lead them to make more bad decisions about the early embryo.

The other immediate impact as announced by some Council members yesterday, and I appreciate their candor, is that this standard will be used immediately as a weapon against existing state laws and federal funding policies that now respect the embryo from the beginning.  For that matter, it may even be used to go back and attack the Unborn Victims of Violence Act just signed by the President yesterday, which respects the embryo from the beginning in violent crime situations.

Most immediately, it will feed into a renewed campaign to overturn current federal policy against encouraging the destruction of new embryos to get their stem cells, a campaign that for all I know was timed to coincide with the date of release of this report.

Knowing that this is the actual intent of some supporters, it would be irresponsible of me to risk facilitating that agenda, which is the opposite of my own, without a very serious reason -- which, for the reasons stated above, I do not think I have at this time.

This is a morally based stance. It may be that people with the same moral convictions come to a different conclusion based on a different perception of the facts.  And in that case, I would like to share with them the evidence for my understanding of the facts and invite them to do the same for me, with the goal of making all of us more rational.

I think I've used up most of my time on that.

On point number two, the proposal regarding the creation of embryos by bizarre means with the intent to initiate a pregnancy, let me just say that it continues to seem to me operationally identical to key language in the Greenwood Cloning Bill of 2001, House Resolution 2172, which attempted to ban the use of "somatic cell nuclear transfer technology with the intent to initiate a pregnancy."

In a June 2001 congressional hearing, that language was thoroughly criticized and discredited by some committee members, by the witness from the Department of Health and Human Services, and most of all by myself and one other witness named Dr. Leon Kass.  Without going into details, Leon, I still find your testimony compelling.

But after speaking with Council members yesterday, I think I better understand why some Council members chose to support this language, from a valid concern about the possible rise of an industry promising manufactured or designer children to vulnerable infertile couples and others and advertising themselves as such. I believe that that goal can be met by other means, and I will certainly do more thinking about how to do that without raising the conundrums that regrettably make me decide not to support this last recommendation on creating with an intent to initiate a pregnancy.

I hope the Council members, despite the fact that the report is now issued, will also continue to think creatively along those lines.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak today.

CHAIRMAN KASS:  Thank you very much for the as usual, very thoughtful and well reasoned presentation. And we will continue to think about these matters, no doubt, and even speak about them together.

Anybody have any epiphanies?  Last words?

The meeting is adjourned.

Safe travel. Look forward to seeing you in June.

(Whereupon, at 11:50 a.m. the meeting was adjourned.)



  - The President's Council on Bioethics -  
 
Home Site Map Disclaimers Privacy Notice Accessibility NBAC HHS