Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Stem Cells, Embryos, and Ethics: Is There A Way Forward?

As the national and international debate over the moral and political implications of human embryonic stem cell research rages on, some scientists have begun to suggest new ways of thinking about the problem. Among them is the Center’s Spring 2006 Schmitt lecturer, Dr. William Hurlbut, a physician and Consulting Professor at Stanford University’s Neuroscience Institute and, since 2002, a member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. On Tuesday afternoon, April 18, in the main auditorium of Notre Dame’s McKenna Hall, Dr. Hurlbut delivered a Schmitt Lecture entitled, “Stem Cells, Embryos and Ethics: Is There A Way Forward?” in which he discussed the seemingly paradoxical possibility of harvesting human pluripotent stem cells without destroying human embryos. The destruction of human embryos is morally out of the question, Dr. Hurlbut argued. But he went to outline a path of research he called Altered Nuclear Transfer, which involves “the artificial construction of a cellular system lacking the essential elements for embryological development but containing a partial developmental potential capable of generating embryonic stem cells.

”Altered Nuclear Transfer, in short, creates an entity that fails to bring together the necessary elements of a human embryo, but which nonetheless contains the pluripotent stem cells that scientists believe contain so much potential for curing various diseases." Dr. Hurlbut drew attention to the fact that his research on Altered Nuclear Transfer has received the approval of many notable Catholic moral thinkers.

After receiving his undergraduate and medical training at Stanford University, Dr. Hurlbut completed postdoctoral studies in theology and medical ethics, studying with Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the Dean of the Chapel at Stanford, and subsequently with the Rev. Louis Bouyer at the Institut Catholique in Paris. Dr. Hurlbut’s primary areas of interest involve the ethical issues associated with advancing biomedical technology, the biological basis of moral awareness, and studies in the integration of theology and the philosophy of biology. He is the author of numerous publications on science and ethics, including the co-edited volume, Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue (Oxford, 2002), and “Science, Religion, and Human Spirit” in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion. He is also co-chair of two interdisciplinary faculty projects at Stanford University, “Becoming Human: The Evolutionary Origins of Spiritual, Religious, and Moral Awareness,” and “Brain, Mind and Emergence.”

Dr. Hurlbut’s lecture was followed by a reception in McKenna Hall, and then by a dinner at the Morris Inn, after which Dr. Hurlbut graciously took more questions from the audience. The lecture and dinner were once again 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. Our special thanks go out to Mr. Peter Wrenn, a member of the Schmitt Foundation Board, who joined us for both the lecture and the dinner.

The aim of the Schmitt Lecture Series—which in the past has featured such distinguished lights as Gil Meilaender, Mark Siegler, Paul Griffiths, Stanley Fish, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and last fall’s lecturer Carter Snead—is to provide an occasion to reflect on the ethical, political and religious dimensions of science and technology. Both our Schmitt lectures this academic year focused on the problem of human embryonic stem cell research. This is entirely appropriate, for there is hardly a contemporary issue that answers the charge of the Schmitt Lecture more than this one. The Center is proud to have contributed to this debate by sponsoring these two very fine Schmitt Lectures this year.

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