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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The ethics of modern science

Campus life has always involved protest and debate, but the recent issues have a common link. Some students fiercely protest abortion, while across campus others abhor the university's support of animal testing. Even embryonic stem-cell research has been called 'Nazi research' by opponents. All of these issues stem from the wealth of technologies provided by modern science.  




President Bush attempted to diffuse the issue in an Aug. 9 speech. 'As the discoveries of modern science create tremendous hope, they also lay vast ethical mine fields,' he said. 'As the genius of science extends the horizons of what we can do, we increasingly confront the complex issue of what we should do.' 




Thanks to modern science, what we can do is growing daily.  




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Already, busy professional women are choosing to have surrogate mothers carry their babies. When a woman wants a child, but does not feel she has the time or energy to carry a baby in her belly for nine months, she can hire another woman to undergo in-vitro fertilization and carry the wanting mother's biological baby. 




For women who want a child, but are pushing the age limit, in-vitro fertilization can again help. A Virginia great-grandmother gave birth recently, thanks to in-vitro fertilization, and this is not an altogether rare occurrence. In 1999, the National Center for Health Statistics reported 174 women in their 50s had children. 




After the procedure's completion, doctors are left with excess embryos, which are capable of developing into human beings. They are then frozen and stand almost no chance at life. 




Even human cloning is proceeding. Worldwide last month, three scientists claimed they were proceeding with human cloning projects. 




While these projects are being conducted across the world, UW-Madison is the center of attention right now for bioethics. Ever since James Thomson, assistant professor at the Primate Research Center, first isolated embryonic stem cells, the political world has been buzzing with debates about the morality of such research. Research on embryonic stem cells also involves destroying human embryos. 




President Bush ruled only the cells isolated before 9 p.m, Aug. 9, can be used in federally funded research. Privately funded research in the United States can use any embryonic stem cells regardless of age. 




High-profile issues such as stem cells and human cloning get front-page coverage, but science is providing far more than just those two issues. Agriculture technology is advancing just as quickly as human research and has a chance to help far more people. 




'If you look at the most optimistic figures about how many people are going to be helped by stem cell research, you get 100 million people,' said Robert Streiffer, assistant professor of philosophy at UW-Madison. 'But if you look at the people that are starving to death or malnourished, the number is much higher.' 




According to Streiffer, some of the most paramount issues revolve around how 'the main crops in the U.S. are being genetically engineered.'  




Crops are being engineered to resist drought and to decrease the need for pesticides, but so far the changes that are showing up on shelves in the United States are not noticeable to consumers. Taste and nutrition have remained the same as before genetic engineering. With no practical way of noticing the modified foods, issue has been taken with the lack of labeling genetically modified foods.  




Often store-bought milk comes from cows injected with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. However, the Monsanto Corporation, manufacturer of the hormone, has managed to keep that information off the labels and has kept it illegal for those who do not use rBGH to advertise as such. Two Florida TV reporters were unduly fired just for attempting to report on Monsanto's hormones.  




Kellogg's cereal has phased out the genetically engineered ingredients from its European products but has yet to do so in the United States. Similar to Monsanto's approach, that information is missing on the box, and so far the policy remains uncontested. 




'The [government] regulatory agencies haven't found any good reasons, by their likes, to stop [the biotech companies] from doing what they're trying to do,' Streiffer said. 




Again, many scientists believe that the private sector will set the standards in stem-cell research due to its ability to use many more embryonic stem-cell lines.  




It is difficult to say who should have the power and who should dictate policy, but there are some guidelines that should be used to qualify anyone applying for the position. 




Alta Charo, professor of law and medical ethics at UW-Madison, has some guidelines for whomever does make the policy. 'In general, one must ask both what is morally defensible ?? and what should be the role and limits of the government in shaping personal choices about conduct that some view as morally deplorable or indefensible.'  




Charo was part of President Clinton's now-defunct National Bioethics Advisory Commission. The NBAC was a group hand picked by Clinton to review current bioethical issues and publish their findings.  




Bush has appointed his version of the same committee, now called the White House Bioethics Committee. Only the committee leader has been chosen as of yet. University of Chicago moral philosopher Leon Kass will head what he claims will be a committee of 10 to 20 members. 




Regardless of his views, Kass' committee will not have regulatory power. The government has other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. However the government agencies are not necessarily without bias. 




'When you've got an agency like the EPA who is charged with protecting the environment, and yet you have a political administration who puts into key positions people who clearly do not have that as they're key goal, that's obviously a problem,' Streiffer said. 




Every new scientific advance brings with it more of those problems, and the mad scramble to keep up with each issue is sure to ensue.

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