Ethics, Science and Ethical Science
March 12, 2020
by David Prentice, PhD
Should ethical considerations have a place in science and medicine? Should ethics reviews be a standard part of science proposal reviews? Some scientists have said one reason they don’t consult ethicists or think about the ethical implications of their research is because ethicists usually say “no” to new technologies or because ethics is arbitrary. But what they are really avoiding is the necessity of setting rational limits on science, thinking they can thereby avoid any limits on their work. Limits that protect all human beings—even nascent human life—are neither arbitrary nor irrational. Such limits offer essential protections against abuses that could actually tarnish the image and standing of science, and limits also provide us opportunities to appreciate our shared humanity. These limits are not barriers but rather channels to move the scientific endeavor onto more productive ground. Science and ethics are not diametrically opposed approaches. In fact, in most cases the two walk hand in hand, enjoying each other’s company and benefitting from the shared journey.
As was previously discussed regarding fetal tissue research, this controversial source of experimental material provides a prime example of the opportunities available for scientific advancement when ethical considerations are taken into account. Within the last year’s time, there has been an increased scrutiny of the use of aborted fetal tissue in experiments. Continued exposure of the ethical as well as scientific failings of fetal tissue research accompanied by examples of scientifically sound ethical alternatives, finally led to a significant policy change at the federal level. On June 5, 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a decision to stop funding intramural fetal tissue research as well as a large fetal tissue research contract, to renew the commitment to fund and develop ethical alternative models, and to invoke an ethics review of extramural grant proposals that wish to use aborted fetal tissue in experiments. Under direction from HHS, the NIH subsequently issued instructions and requirements regarding grant applications that proposed using fetal tissue, for all new and renewal applications with due dates on or after September 25, 2019.
The new policy put in place gives ethics primacy in funding decisions. Besides the immediate end of some taxpayer funding for fetal tissue experiments, the ethics-based HHS decision is expected to result in better, modern science with redirection of funds to research using ethically-sourced human cells and tissues. There is already some indication that encouraging such an ethical review of the science is having this effect, with news stories playing up the angst of some researchers who formerly used aborted fetal tissue, but who are still moving away from including the unethical source of tissue in their grant proposals.
The focus now turns to the ethical review panel invoked by HHS in June 2019. After a pre-announcement regarding its formation, HHS formally published a notice of the establishment of the ethical review committee. This ethics review board has been in statute for decades, but it has never been convened until now. As noted in statute, the Secretary of HHS convenes the committee to advise on the ethics of the research proposals, not the science. The ethics board will be composed of scientists (no more than half of the committee), ethicists, attorneys, theologians and practicing physicians, for a total of 15 members. And again, their focus is to be on the ethics of the research. Their report is due to the Secretary by late summer.
Some have already proclaimed doom and gloom, with millions dying, if aborted fetal tissue research does not continue. Such ludicrous, contemptible fear-mongering is a thinly-veiled attempt to cling to taxpayer dollars for unethical research. The truth needs to be heard by all. Ethical science is better science, benefits us all, lifts us higher and should be our goal.