Posted on July 24, 1999


Celling Out

The tainted ethics of the NBAC

by Daniel Clark


Considering all that has transpired since President Clinton promised the most ethical administration in history, one should not be surprised by the recent report from the ethics panel he appointed to study human embryo experimentation.

In it, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) promotes taxpayer-funded research on human stem cells. These cells, which hypothetically can be manipulated to replicate tissue from any part of the body, are to be taken from donated embryos, which, of course, are destroyed in the process.

One of the many curious things about the report, from an ethical standpoint, is that the NBAC violated its own founding document through the recommendations it made. When Clinton created the NBAC through Executive Order 12975, he specified in Section 1 that, "[T]he National Bioethics Advisory Commission shall pursue, as its first priority, protection of the rights and welfare of human research subjects." (emphasis added)

Surely, one would presume, the President must have concocted a definition of "human research subjects" that deliberately excludes the human unborn. Not so. To define the term "human subject", Clinton refers the NBAC to the 1991 Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects. That document states, in section 46.102(f):

"Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains…data through intervention or interaction with the individual…"

 It would take some impressive contortions to make the case that the term "living individual" does not apply to an individual living embryo. Furthermore, extracting one's stem cells certainly qualifies as "intervention or interaction." So it appears conclusive that the NBAC has disobeyed its prime directive.

Perhaps aware of this, the commission explained in its report, "This research is allied with a noble cause, and any taint that might attach from the source of the stem cells diminishes in proportion to the potential good which the research may yield." What an eloquent way to say that the ends justify the means.

It is important to stress that the NBAC is not empowered to create or implement policy; its role, as its title indicates, is advisory. Its broader function, however, is to relieve policy makers of responsibility where moral issues are concerned. An unaccountable band of academic elites pronounces that embryonic stem cell research is ethical, and lo, it is ethical. Politicians are spared from debating and deciding the issue themselves, since they can defer to the appointed experts, who are presumably adept in the science of morality. That's an awesome authority to place in the hands of a commission which lacks the basic integrity to adhere to its own first priority.

Casting further doubt on the moral authority of the NBAC is that its chairman, Harold T. Shapiro, is the president of Princeton University, where protests have erupted over the recent appointment of infanticide advocate Peter Singer as Chair of Bioethics in the school's Center for Human Values. Singer's views (that pigs have a greater right to life than handicapped newborns, for instance) are relevant to the stem cell report for two reasons. First, they illustrate the far-reaching elasticity of the term "ethics" in academic circles, thereby marring the credentials of most NBAC members. Second, Shapiro's responsibility to his students should have elicited a he-goes-or-I-go ultimatum at the first hint of Singer's appointment. In the absence of such one must wonder, when Shapiro is weighing the value of humanity, whether his thumb is on the other end of the scale.

Some might challenge the fairness of judging Shapiro by another man's bizarre thoughts, so let's look at one of the chairman's own, from a November 20, 1998 letter to President Clinton.

"Human embryonic stem cells, while derived from embryos, are not themselves capable of developing into children. The use of human embryonic stem cells, for example to generate cells for transplantation, does not directly raise the same type of moral concerns." 

This would make perfect sense, if only stem cells came a la carte. Unfortunately, they come from embryos which are killed for the purpose of stem cell research. The embryos are just as dead as if they were killed and studied whole, the only difference being that the person conducting the experiment has left the destructive phase to somebody else. To justify the use of the stem cells on these grounds is the ethical equivalent of buying kidneys from Jack Kevorkian.

Worse yet, the NBAC's 1997 report on human cloning warned repeatedly against "any attempt to create a child" through implantation of a cloned embryo, but issued no objection to cloning a human embryo in the first place. (In its recommendation, the commission considers post-implantation risks to the "fetus and/or potential child," so its use of the word "child" obviously does not apply to unimplanted embryos.) According to the NBAC, the cloning of a human embryo is only unethical if it is allowed to live; therefore, stem cell research is ethical precisely because it requires that its embryonic subjects be destroyed. That is the kind of reasoning we get when our most profound questions are answered by a panel of moral relativists appointed by Bill Clinton.

The truth be known, the last thing this president wants is to hold policies on life-and-death issues to ethical standards. If somebody genuinely proposed to do that, using consistent principles rather than balancing subjectively valued pluses and minuses, we would surely be warned by the Clinton administration, as well as by bioethicists, against "legislating morality."

In the absence of recognizable moral guidelines, the NBAC's proclamations about what considerations outweigh others are arbitrary. The degree to which the report is accepted is dependent not on the force of its arguments, but on blind trust in the anointed experts.

Of course, the very idea that there can be such things as experts in the field of ethics is an example of classic liberal pomposity. While there could be justification to call on some NBAC members to provide testimony in the areas of medicine and biology, their expertise in those fields does nothing to qualify them to be canonized as moral superiors.

In the same way that legislators and their constituents are passive toward Supreme Court decisions which directly conflict with the Constitution, they are now to meekly accept bioethics reports which, by design, do not follow any ethical standards. What would result from that is what an activist judge might call a "living" ethical code, which amends itself spontaneously, according to current convenience. If this commission decides one day to agree with Peter Singer, all it needs is a cause noble enough to diminish the taint of infanticide.

Recent developments in stem cell research have offered suggestions of immortality, but as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, the closest thing we'll ever see to eternal life is the lifespan of a government program. The NBAC, originally due to expire on October 3, 1997, was given a two-year extension by President Clinton. He has left himself the option of renewing it again, and likely will exercise it, since bioethical concerns will only become greater in the near future. If our next president is half as enamored with unchecked executive power as our current one is, this monument to human arrogance may stand forever.


***Note: On September 16, 1999, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13137, which established the NBAC as a permanent commission within the Department of Health and Human Services.


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