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Professor Pushes Hot-Button Topics of Contemporary Ethical Debates

November 23, 2005 By:
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Paul Root Wolpe
Mention the contentious issues of stem cells or cloning at a meeting of a Jewish communal organization that frequently weighs in on some of the more political topics of the day and you're likely to stir up a hornet's nest.

Indeed, according to University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, these two subjects have managed to replace abortion as "the moral issues of the 21st century."

So when Wolpe, also NASA's resident bioethicist, took the podium at last week's meeting of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee in an attempt to splice the two hot topics from their political debates, he admitted that he had his work cut out for him.

What he delivered, with frequent injections of humor, for the AJCommittee chapter's first "Jewish Views of … " lecture was a primer on the ethical questions facing society as stem cell and cloning technology rapidly advances. In coming months, other talks will examine issues from when to conduct war to intelligent design.

"The world is changing more profoundly than in your wildest dreams," Wolpe told the some 60 people gathered in a ballroom at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel in Center City on Nov. 17. "We are generating replacement parts for virtually every part of the body."

The danger, he warned, was that in soon being able to essentially create a human being, society may be facing the loss of its humanity.

Turning specifically to stem cells, which hold promise as the sources of a myriad of potential cures to disease, and among other processes can be harvested from sacrificed human embryos - many segments of the anti-abortion community have seized on this aspect of stem-cell science to declare it evil, while others point out that the embryos being destroyed do not come from viable pregnancies - Wolpe said that most citizens just don't know definitively what to think.

"Nobody knows what to do about stem cells," he said. "They fill in the borders between our moral categories."

Referencing a paper written by his colleagues at Penn, professors Glenn McGee and Arthur Caplan, he noted that all original definitions of the term "embryo" referred specifically to a pregnancy: "It always meant in the womb, because if you took it out of the womb, it died."

Therefore, he postulated, an embryo created in a laboratory setting from the fusion of a donated sperm and egg - what Wolpe referred to frequently as "cells in a Petri dish" - perhaps was not an actual embryo, per se.

"It may be some other moral entity," he concluded. "Incidentally, in the Jewish world, most authorities take this perspective some way or another."

The crux of such a position, he added later, was that laboratory embryos should not be destroyed willy-nilly; but in the pursuit of some life-saving cure, it would be ethically permissible to use the stem cells from such embryos.

Shifting his focus to cloning, Wolpe then showed the audience pictures of mammals that have successfully been cloned to date, from Dolly the Sheep to CC the Cat. It was not so academic anymore, he emphasized, to begin to think in terms of one day being able to clone a human being.

He said to the audience that the Jewish people are a natural to contribute to the debate.

"Jews have a unique history and reaction to these kinds of issues," he began. "I don't think it has been coincidence that there have been three major presidentially appointed bioethics commissions, all chaired by Jews. Why is it that Jews are appointed to those positions that call for moral judgement?"

Wolpe's response: "We have thousands of years of insight we can apply to these questions."

And for a people that suffered under Nazi attempts at eugenics, Jews are uniquely sensitive to questions that could one day give people the ability to attempt creation of a master race.

"Take Frankenstein versus the golem," said Wolpe, contrasting the character made famous by author Mary Shelley and the Jewish tale of a creature made by a rabbi. "The golem was created because of the wisdom of the rabbi. Frankenstein was created because Victor von Frankenstein thought it would be cool.

"There has to be a way to stop our technology when it goes out of control," he continued, taking it for granted that ceasing progress where it is today would either be pointless or highly impractical. "We need to build safeguards into it."

 

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