Saturday, April 18, 2009

NIH finds morality has a place in science

The NIH proposed guidelines are out on stem cells, and they could have been a lot worse. As Yuval Levin points out,

On their face, the new NIH rules are essentially the Clinton administration guidelines, which were published in 2000 though never actually put into effect. They would fund research on lines of embryonic stem cells derived from embryos created for reproductive purposes but not implanted, and turned over by their parents to be destroyed for research. The consent forms involved also have to demonstrate a degree of separation between the decision to produce embryos and the decision to make them available to researchers. The NIH will not fund the use of embryos created by human cloning, or those created by IVF specifically for research.

...It could be worse above all because these rules have a practical and a symbolic significance. In practical terms, the NIH will now be able to fund just about all ongoing embryonic stem cell research with taxpayer dollars. But in symbolic terms, the message this sends is that even the NIH, even when left to itself and unconstrained by political masters, has to acknowledge that the destruction of embryos for research is not an innocent and unproblematic practice, but must be constrained for ethical reasons. These rules raise the question of why limits are necessary, and any serious answer to that question would lead us to conclude that these rules are inadequate. Although its answer is disappointing, it is good that the NIH has caused the question to be raised. These days, we take what we can get, and what will help us make our case in better days to come. A tiny silver lining anyway, on a very cloudy day.