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US and them…Stem Cell Research on both sides of the Atlantic and why we might be a little more similar than we think. July 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, European Politics, Frozen embryos, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.

I’ve been reading in the Irish Times and the Guardian about the stem cell controversy [subscription required], and what is striking is how in the US the approach taken by Bush, where he has vetoed state funding for such research despite overwhelming Congressional support, is trumpeted as an example of the backwardness of his government, whereas to date there has been hardly a peep about the attitude of our colleagues in Europe. Until this week, that is.
Let’s consider the way the issue stacks up on this side of the Atlantic. The basic outlines of it are as follows. The EU also voted on a €50 billion science investment programme. So far so non-contentious. The problem being that as part of the programme there is explicit funding provided for embryonic stem-cell research. Generally this sort of research is limited in Europe as the IT notes ‘under strict conditions on surplus embryos created as part of the in-vitro fertilisation process’.

The Irish position, as articulated by Micheál Martin was that ‘ethical subsidiarity’ should be maintained, which means effectively that while such research would not be permitted here and no funding would go to it, it would be allowed and funded within European states which allow such research to be conducted. One aspect of government thinking according to the IT report is ‘that it is concerned that a protracted disagreement or the emergence of a group of states holding a blocking veto could result in the entire science investment package being stalled”. And the investment isn’t inconsiderable. Irish researchers received €200 million from the last investment package – they’re hoping for more this time.

So how does the rest of Europe see it? Well, the lines were fairly clearly drawn between two camps. On the pro-embryonic stem cell research side we had the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. On the opposing side we had Germany, Poland, Austria and Malta (Slovenia defected to the other side). I find this latter camp very interesting. Germany has some of the most restrictive IVF laws in Europe, to the extent that German nationals (as quoted in the Sunday Business Post at the weekend [here]) are voting with their feet in order to avail of more liberal services abroad. Indeed it’s entire approach to such issues appears cautious in the extreme – yet it is a relatively liberal society. Nor is this some sort of Catholic/Protestant or more likely Catholic/non-Religious divide. Spain was, last time I looked, at least nominally Catholic.

Anyhow, to assuage German feeling, a fudge was done and the EU Commission stated that EU money won’t be used to fund any research that destroys human embryo’s Individual countries would retain their right to ban or permit such research according to their own preference, and it was decided that new “EU rules mean that this part of the process will have to be funded from outside the EU budget”. [here]

Germany gets a stronger restatement of already existing EU rules, but everyone is allowed to go their own way. Which curiously is not that different to the US position – although the financial slack will be made up from private, rather than national funding in the US.

The point being that there are within Europe, as within the US, genuine and significant differences of opinion. The Irish view, weirdly seems to me to almost ‘federalist’ in the US sense of the word, and none the worse for that. In a context where interstate travel is relatively easy I don’t think that it’s a bad idea for different European states to have different approaches to ethical issues as determined by their populations. Is that mealy-mouthed? Is Martin, and indeed myself, attempting to make a virtue of necessity? Perhaps, but we know to our cost how destructive protracted arguments about such issues can be. A plurality along the lines suggested in the terms ‘ethical subsidiarity’ is realistic.

I wonder, though on a different level, if any of this means anything or is it just gesture politics writ large. In the US although federal funds won’t be available, private funding is available. Those supporting such research include such luminaries as Nancy Reagan amongst others. When issues cut across parties in that way you can be certain that there will be further fudges so that everyone walks away with something.

Above and beyond that one doesn’t have to believe in the onset of some sort of genetic Singularity to see that biology is going to be a major area of change over the course of this century. What interests me is, that rather like fusion, the introduction of new techniques and processes in this field is taking much longer than was originally thought. That may well change.

In the long run…and after all, there’s always a long run, I imagine that such research within strict guidelines will become normalised. How do I feel about that? I honestly don’t know. The old arguments about maximisation of good seem to me to be fairly strong in this instance. I don’t personally buy into the idea that the embryo per se is necessarily the absolute defining point at which life starts. The body itself in it’s almost profligate shedding of embryo’s (six to eight out of every ten never implant under ‘natural’ conditions) seems to me to indicate that more is required if we are to have a meaningful definition. But that’s just me, and I’m open to alternative interpretations.


1. smiffy - July 27, 2006

I think the debate over whether or not life begins at fertilisation (or whatever other arbitrary point one wishes to choose) is a bit of a dead end, and doesn’t really bring us any closer to a real understanding of the ethical implications of stem cell research (or, indeed, IVF or abortion).

Focussing so heavily on this point seems to imply that if we could only come to some consensus on where life begins, the argument would be solved. Even if such a question could ever be satisfactorily answered (and it couldn’t) all it would do would be to raise further controversy.

What’s needed in this context if not an enquiry into where life begins, but what we mean by ‘life’ in the first place and what value we should place on it. Too many people use the term ‘life’ (although they tend to be referring only to ‘human life’) as if it was the same thing as ‘person’, as if to suggest that the idea that all value is equally valuable and is worthy of equal respect is axiomatic. Indeed, many self-described ‘pro-life’ advocates would state this explicitly. However, it’s hard to believe that they really believe it in anything more than an abstract way.

I read an interesting hypothetical example recently – it puts you in the middle of a burning fertility clinic. On one side of the room are five blastocysts in petri dishes; on the other is a live, two-month old child. You can only get to one side of the room or the other. Which do you choose to save? It’s hard to imagine even the most ardent advocate of foetal rights thinking that there’s even a question about which to go for.

One could quite easily accept that frozen embryos or those produced to harvest stem cells constitute ‘life’, but not necessarily accept that this makes the exploitation of those embryos necessarily wrong (although it would be a mistake to assume that there are no serious ethical considerations to take into account).

It’s by no means an easy question, especially when you look not just at the morality of the issue, but think about how it should be legislated for. It’s also likely that anyone who explicitly states that some lives are more valuable than others will automatically be labelled a Nazi (even though, as the example above shows, we make those kinds of judgements all the time – even without getting into the issue of the exceptionalism of humans). But without engaging with those kinds of questions, there’s no point in having the debate in the first place.


2. WorldbyStorm - July 29, 2006

I entirely agree with you as regards the partial irrelevance as to when ‘life’ begins. I also agree with you that even if that is determined it has only limited bearing on the issues you note. However, what is interesting to me is the way that this issue has a traction in places one might expect, such as Germany. I disagree with the German position as I (hope I) implicitly make clear at the end of the post above, but I’d love to tease out the reasons as to why they take this position. Is it from the point of view of a fear of eugenics, is it down to the influence of leftwing anti-IVF/ART groups such as ReproKult or is it a byproduct of a societal conservatism? The strange thing is that abortion is legal in Germany and doesn’t appear to be an issue for left or right, so I find the fact they concentrate on embryos difficult to understand.


3. The Cedar Lounge Revolution » Blog Archive » A less than perfect storm - embryos and Irish politics. - August 11, 2006

[…] And, equally unfortunately it’s out of date. The leaflet was clearly generated off the back of the recent events in Europe regarding EU funding for stem cell research, which does indeed use embryo’s as noted [here]. However, it’s interesting to note the embryoresearch website hasn’t been updated in months since the EU agreed, much along the lines of the governments approach, to allow research where it was deemed appropriate by local populations. […]


4. They’re back! The embryo, stem cell research, and the definition of the human… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 2, 2007

[…] now known that the vast majority do not and that the human body sheds embryo’s with a gloomy profligacy – gloomy that is if one is to follow the logical conclusion regarding the nature of the embryo that […]


5. 5 Years ago this month on the CLR – US and them…Stem Cell Research on both sides of the Atlantic and why we might be a little more similar than we think. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 22, 2011

[…] Here’s an issue that’s not going to go away, although, as with many others the intervening crises have to some degree made them fade in the public imagination. […]


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