For our regular Friday feature, The Good Old Days, we turn to an article at the New York Times that looks at stem-cell research and its opposition movement. The history of opposition to medical progress is briefly outlined in the editorial:
Protests to medical research in America began early. Inoculation, a precursor to vaccination, met with much opposition during the first big trials of the technique, in the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic, said Ronald L. Numbers, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin. (Interestingly, he said, the trials were led by a minister, Cotton Mather, and many of those objecting were physicians, who thought he was playing God.) And when vaccination was developed some 70 years later, Dr. Numbers said, there were religious objections. But these dwindled as the benefits became apparent.
Similarly, Dr. Numbers said, there were protests in the late 18th and early 19th centuries against the dissection of cadavers for medical education. It’s not clear how much religious beliefs were responsible for the protests, he said, “although you occasionally have discussions about, if you cut them into pieces, what’s going to happen at the time of the resurrection?”
Nathaniel Comfort, an associate professor of history of science and medicine at Johns Hopkins, said that society’s views on what is acceptable have changed over the years. When Jacques Loeb announced in 1899 that he had initiated embryonic development in sea urchins without the use of sperm, “the public reaction seems to have been one of awe and surprise and celebration,” Dr. Comfort said.
Yet seven decades later, when the first successful work on recombinant DNA–a basic tool of genetic engineering–was announced, “there was this whole fear of playing God,” he said.
“What leaps out at me is how culturally situated this notion of shock and horror at the engineering of life is,” he added. “What is it about our times that raises these sorts of moral and ethical concerns?”
In the case of stem cells, some concerns are overshadowed by the tantalizing promise of the research: rejection-free organ transplants, regenerated spinal cords, perfectly matched blood transfusions, cures for diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
But those promises run headlong into questions raised by a dark history of research. Take eugenics. According to Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of “Preaching Eugenics,” scientists who supported eugenics claimed that it could cure disease and end poverty – involuntary sterilizations were one result.
But the scientific underpinnings cited by early eugenics researchers were often wrong, Ms. Rosen said. “The heritability of certain diseases and eye colors were right, but broader claims they made as a result were incorrect,” she said.
Many religious groups tried to stop eugenics, Ms. Rosen said, but they were called obstructionists.
“The only thing that stopped this,” Ms. Rosen said, “was war and the lessons of Nazi Germany and improvements in science.”
The controversy over eugenics is particularly relevant to the current debate, argues Wesley J. Smith, an opponent of therapeutic cloning at the Discovery Institute, a conservative research group in Seattle.
When eugenics was popular, he said, “people at the top levels of society were accepting of the idea that you could improve the human race by improving the gene pool.” Even the United States Supreme Court, he said, supported involuntary sterilization, in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell.
Well, that’s all for this week. Have a nice weekend! And see you on these pages next week.