Friday, July 31, 2009

An unethical approach to unethical research

The University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute is killing human embryos for embryonic stem cell research. According to testimony at the state Capitol, it is also pursuing human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to produce new embryos for such research. But the University contradicted itself in an exchange with MCCL over its interest in human cloning, and the school has refused to respond to MCCL's public call for clarity and honesty.

On the Stem Cell Institute's Web site, I found a few remarkable statements.

"The University understands that some may have concerns about this research and is prepared to engage in a dialogue about the legal, ethical, and moral issues of this research."

Really? Why hasn't the University responded to our ethical and legal concerns -- expressed in a letter to the University, a press release and a Pioneer Press op-ed -- about some of the research being conducted? MCCL is comprised of more than 70,000 member families across the state of Minnesota who deserve some "dialogue" from the state's largest public institution of higher education.

"We take these issues very seriously at the University and work diligently to ensure all research is conducted respectfully, in full accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, and respect for the moral and ethical questions surrounding the research."

Yet the University has not bothered to provide a legal rationale for (embryo-destructive) research that, on its face, is illegal under Minnesota law.

"Precisely because the University is a public institution, dedicated to the free and open pursuit of ideas, this research should take place here."

Surely the University's status as a public institution means that it is accountable in some ways to the taxpayers who help fund it. Should the ethical objections of thousands of Minnesotans with regard to a highly controversial research practice (a practice former National Institutes of Health head Bernadine Healy says is scientifically "obsolete" in any case) have any influence on whether the University, as a public institution, engages in that research?

The University falsely accused MCCL of making "false statements," was corrected in a factual response that also called the University on its dishonesty over cloning and its dismissal of state law, and then didn't bother to apologize or even engage in a discussion with its critics. Whether or not the University's embryo research is moral or legal, most of us can agree that the school's approach to and defense of such work has been ethically problematic.