Thursday, November 17, 2005

Speaking Truthfully about Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning

There is at present no issue in biomedical ethics more fraught with misconceptions and exaggerated expectations than the field of stem cell research, especially research involving human embryos. To help us separate the facts from the fiction, the Center called upon Carter Snead, associate professor at the Notre Dame Law School, to deliver our semi-annual Schmitt Lecture, which was entitled: “Speaking Truthfully About Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning.” Professor Snead’s lecture was delivered on Wednesday afternoon, November 16, 2005, to a large crowd in the main auditorium of McKenna Hall at Notre Dame.

Professor Snead is uniquely qualified to discuss the moral, scientific and legal ramifications of stem cell research and human cloning. Before joining Notre Dame’s law faculty this year, Professor Snead was general counsel for President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. While serving on the Council, Professor Snead advised its members on the legal and public policy dimensions of numerous ethical questions arising from advances in biomedical science and biotechnology. He was the principal drafter of the Council’s 2004 report, “Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies,” a comprehensive critical assessment of the governance (both public and private) of the activities at the intersection of assisted reproduction, human embryo research, and genetics.

In his energetic and engaging lecture, Professor Snead argued that, contrary to much popular rhetoric, science itself provides no answer to the moral question of whether it is licit to do research on human embryos or to clone human beings. He further claimed that the best moral argument for the maximal protection of the embryo was based on equality, claiming further that this was not a religious argument, but one accessible to all in the public debate.

The aim of the Schmitt Lecture Series—which in the past has featured such distinguished lights as Gilbert Meilaender, Mark Siegler, Paul Griffiths, Stanley Fish, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Michael Baxter—is to provide an occasion to reflect on the ethical, political and religious dimensions of science and technology. It is difficult to imagine a topic which answers more directly to the charge of the Schmitt Lecture than the topic discussed by Professor Snead.

The lecture was well-attended by Notre Dame’s Schmitt Fellows, those graduate students in the Schools of Science and Engineering who are the principal recipients of the generosity of the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation to the University of Notre Dame. It was for the sake of honoring that generosity that the Schmitt Lecture Series was founded.

A reception immediately followed the lecture in McKenna Hall, and then a special group of Center guests, including the Schmitt Fellows and a cross-section of Notre Dame faculty, convened at the Morris Inn for a dinner in honor of Professor Snead. After dessert, Professor Snead generously agreed to take more questions from the audience. In this lively question-and-answer period, we were especially pleased to see how many of those questions came from Schmitt Fellows, who found this topic deeply compelling. In the end, the day was a great success, and a fitting tribute to Arthur J. Schmitt’s desire to help form young persons in the fields of science and engineering not only as people of technical expertise, but also as moral leaders in their fields.

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