Gene Outka


Hype tempts us all. It would be naive to exempt scientists from sometimes overstating the promise of their research. Early claims about what gene therapy would accomplish, for example, were arguably exaggerated and eroded public confidence. Yet claims about what stem cell research may accomplish belong in a class by themselves. The general public is now convinced that something momentous is occurring. Both professional and popular publications register the excitement that scientists evidence. This research, it is routinely said, will not only expand significantly what we know about cellular life, but it will also bring dazzling clinical benefits. Those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and others are regularly identified as eventual beneficiaries. Because these possibilities are now widely accepted as truly feasible, researchers secure vaster amounts of material support all the while.

Whether these claims too will prove exaggerated awaits research efforts that are still in their early stages. In the case of embryonic stem cell research, consider this sobering report: "To date, no therapeutic applications of embryoderived cells have been demonstrated, and only one preliminary human trial has been approved by the FDA (though it has yet to begin)." Some scientists acknowledge with an honesty I admire that they are still years away from broadly applicable therapies. We long for such benefits, of course, and most of us sense a genuinely other-regarding motive at work among those who make claims about benefits. That is, the prospect such research affords for bringing concrete relief to numerous human sufferers motivates scientists to engage in it. We discern and respect this motive, although we do well to acknowledge that less altruistic considerations, such as a search for funding and profits, sometimes operate as well.

This Article takes general stock of moral judgments about embryonic stem cell research in particular and offers one specific resolution. It canvasses a spectrum of value judgments on sources, complicity, and "adult" stem cells. It proposes to extend the principle of "nothing is lost" to current debates. This extension links historic discussions of the ethics of direct killing with unprecedented possibilities that in vitro fertilization procedures yield. The creation of embryos solely for research purposes should be resisted, yet research on "excess" embryos is permissible by virtue of an appeal to the "nothing is lost" principle.