September 14, 2004

"Stem Cell Research: The Ethical Debate"

Professor Albert R. Jonsen

Pioneer Bioethicist
Professor Emeritus
Medical History and Ethics
University of Washington

At the University of California, San Francisco, Al Jonsen became one of the first professors of bioethics in a medical school.  He pioneered the teaching of bioethics to medical students, residents, and faculty members and organized a course on medical ethics that became a requirement for all medical students.  Prof. Jonsen started his academic career as a Jesuit, teaching moral theology and ethics at the University of San Francisco, then served as the President of the University of San Francisco.   This background made our Café Scientifique discussion all the more fascinating.

Professor Jonsen delivered his formal remarks in the form of the narration of the dilemma faced by Damien O' a hypothetical scientist agonizing over the use of embryonic stem cells (ESC) to further his research in histocompatibility.  The entire text of this address is available here. After examining the five questions – physical, moral, ethical, evidence and political – raised by the use of ESCs, Damien O' eventually decides to espouse the promising technology.  Damian O's opinion reflects that of Prof. Jonsen. 

During the Q&A period, he stressed that one of the failures of the debate in ESCs is the inability to distinguish the different levels of religious discourse.  Religions span the gamut between creeds based on divine inspiration all the way to edicts concerning fertilization.  Taking his own background as an example, Prof. Jonsen remarked that many Catholics believe in the Catholic Church but not in its biology.  He also pointed out that doctrinal aspects are subject to change.  The adoption by the Catholic Church of conception as the beginning of life is relatively recent (150 years.)

Prof. Jonsen guarded the audience against the exaggerated hopes of the therapeutic value of ESCs.  He stressed that many more years of research are needed and he would favor the terms of the UK experiment to regulate and fund such research.  He mentioned that hype also exists in the potential of adult stem cells, which are difficult to isolate and which clones have a very high propensity for defects.

Many thanks to Charlotte de Géry for re-typing Prof. Jonsen's remarks.