In this volume, my colleagues have presented a comprehensive account of the pros and cons of stem cell research and cloning; I will not repeat this discussion, nor will I focus on my own views regarding the moral acceptability of these activities. Instead, I plan to focus on the typical response of the federal government to issues of the type that are presented by embryonic stem cell research and cloning and to evaluate the consequences of this typical response.
The issues to which I refer are, in general, features of much research in the field of reproductive biology. The issues arise when a particular project or a field of research or practice entails either the creation by any means other than "natural procreation" of an entity that could develop into a human person, or the destruction of such an entity, whether the entity was created "naturally" or in vitro. Embryonic stem cell research includes both problematic procedures: the creation of embryos via in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning, and the derivation of cell lines (necessitating the destruction of the potential for an embryo to develop into a person). Cell lines created from so-called "adult" stem cells do not fall under this category because an "adult" stem cell cannot develop into a human person. Federal officials would strongly prefer not to alienate those who believe destruction of embryos that could develop into human persons is murder (notably, but not exclusively, the religious right) or that the creation of human life by artificial means is morally wrong. They similarly do not want to appear to oppose the efforts of scientists to pursue cures for deadly or disabling diseases, particularly when the means to pursue such cures are advocated aggressively by popular public figures.
The federal official who must produce a policy to govern such fields of research or practice appears to be ensnared in a true dilemma. To choose either side is fraught with grave political risk. In such circumstances, the official can, and often does, make a "safe" decision, choosing neither side in this controversy. The safe decision is to permit the conduct of the activity in the private sector while withholding the support of public funding for the field of study or practice. The official, like Pontius Pilate, washes his or her hands of the matter.
Robert J. Levine,
Federal Funding and the Regulation of Embryonic Stem Cell Research: The Pontius Pilate Maneuver,
Yale J. Health Pol'y L. & Ethics
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjhple/vol9/iss3/5