Sep 28, 2010

New complications for adult stem cell ethics

Adult stem cells don't raise the same moral questions that embryonic stem cells do, since embryos need not be destroyed to use adult stem cells for research. But this simple picture is changing rapidly as stem cell science advances: according to a recent article in Scientific American, it may be possible within a decade to use adult stem cells to create gametes.
  • Verifying that the pluripotent adult stem cells are safe for therapeutic use requires comparing them to embryonic stem cells. So, at least in the near future, there will be significant scientific demand for embryonic stem cells.
  • It's cheap and easy to collect tissue (like skin cells) and produce adult stem cells. Once it's possible to create gametes from adult stem cells, this means that tissue donation can amount to donating sperm or eggs; we need a good regulatory regime to deal with the obvious ethical concerns that this possibility raises. For example, if I donate some skin tissue, do I have any right to refuse that gametes be produced from that tissue, even if my anonymity would be protected?
  • With gametes (and thus, potentially, children) being produced from adult stem cells, the barriers to parenthood are dramatically lowered. Conceivably, the very elderly or very young, as well as the deceased (who have donated tissue), could become parents. What policies should we develop to deal with these possibilities?
  • It will be easier than ever for parents to select for particular traits in their children. This raises important questions about the moral constraints on such choices. For instance, are parents morally obliged to create the "best" possible child? There are also related legal questions. Should children be able to bring "wrongful life" suits on their parents for bringing them into the world with a severe disability? 
These may be some of the most important issues in applied ethics and public policy in the coming decades.