Dr. William B. Hurlbut, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is a physician and a consulting professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University. An opponent of stem-cell research that uses surplus embryos created by in-vitro fertilization, he supported President Bush’s veto in July 2006 of a Senate bill that would have expanded federally funded research on IVF-derived embryonic stell cells. Hurlbut has proposed an alternative method for obtaining embryonic stem cells, called Altered Nuclear Transfer, which was one basis for an alternative bill, S. 2754, sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. He recently spoke to Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about the president’s veto, the scientific promise and the moral peril of stem-cell research, and his vision of how to resolve the current controversy.

President Bush recently vetoed legislation passed by the U.S. Senate that would have authorized expanding the lines of embryonic stem cells available for federally funded research. Did you support his veto of that legislation?

I wasn’t asked to make a political judgment on that veto, but I do have moral concerns about the use of in-vitro fertilization embryos for obtaining embryonic stem cells for research to be funded with federal funding.

Can you explain what your concerns are about that research?

You have to understand the history of this. When abortion came up as a very difficult national debate, we were really unable to resolve it. The Supreme Court ultimately issued a so-called right of abortion based on the idea that there was a private issue of the mother’s body, a right not to be encumbered with the pregnancy. That placed abortion and all the associated issues in the private realm.

When in-vitro fertilization came up about 10 years later--the first in-vitro fertilization baby was born in 1978--Congress debated again when is the beginning of life and what is the role of the federal government in funding research and clinical practices that involve the endangerment of embryos. Again, this was a bitter debate. It’s hard to define clearly what the biology of the beginning of life is and the moral assignment of worth to that is contested.
The government ultimately resolved this by the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which forbids federal funding for anything that endangers or destroys human embryos. That’s what’s at stake here. It’s long-standing federal policy and that’s why the president vetoed it along with his personal conviction, which is shared by many Americans, that it is wrong to use embryos as a kind of instrumental means toward medical ends.
Do you believe that embryonic stem cells could hold a key to the solution to various forms of human suffering from disease or genetic disorders?
I do believe that embryonic stem-cell research, from a scientific perspective, is interesting and worth studying.
There are many things in medicine and science that we would like to study that we can’t because there are moral problems associated with doing so.
The key is to find a way to do it that doesn’t violate basic moral principles and upholds the positive scientific purposes of the research. That way we can go forward as a united society with our biomedical science funded with full support of the nation as a part of our identity as a noble and progressive society.
I’m interested in what you see as both the potential and the moral peril of stem cell research. First, what is the potential?
That is somewhat speculative, because we’ve had many phases of medicine where we put all our hopes on one thing. Embryonic stem cells represent the starting point for the human organism. It’s thought that they have the potential to form all the tissues and maybe organs of the body. They do that in the natural context of the embryo itself, but whether we can do that in a dish is a whole other question.
I do believe this is very worthwhile studying, but there are moral problems with doing it. I think that it’s exploratory sciencebut I don’t think it’s worth exploring at the cost of deep social conflict and overriding traditions of moral concern that have held our society together.
Science needs social cohesion as its core.
You see what happens when you don’t have it in places like Europe where there’s such opposition to genetically modified foods, or in our own country and in England, where there’s a deep division concerning use of animals in research.
What is the moral dilemma about research with embryos created through the process of in-vitro fertilization that are discarded in the hundreds of thousands every year?
Federal legislators recognize that a large number of the people that they represent believe that human life begins at fertilization. It’s self-evident. Biologically human life begins at fertilization. I don’t see how anybody could argue with that. It’s not an issue of whether it biologically is alive. It’s a question of when we assign moral worth to something.
My personal feeling, after agonizing over this as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is that we should assign moral worth to the full continuity of human organismal existence from natural fertilization to natural death.