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The Stem Cell ControversyReview - The Stem Cell Controversy
Debating the Issues
by Michael Ruse and Christopher A. Pynes (Editors)
Prometheus, 2003
Review by Kelly J. Salsbery, Ph.D.
Jan 22nd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 3)

During the Fall 2005 semester at my university, I used The Stem Cell Controversy extensively in an upper level philosophy course focusing on issues concerning the relationship between science and religion. Thus, this review draws on my students' experience as well as my own. My reaction to this book is, however, somewhat mixed. Overall, I believe that there are some exceedingly positive aspects to this book, particularly when used as a text, but also several elements that I found problematic. As the title suggests, the focus of this book is the acceptability of the use of stem cells for research or for the treatment of disease and it addresses various medical, ethical, religious, and political perspectives concerning this issue. In general, this book is a collection of relatively brief readings (coming from a variety of sources) and is divided into five major parts. Each part, in turn, includes four or more readings.

The book itself starts out with a copy of President George W. Bush's August 9, 2001 televised speech concerning stem cell research. This nicely frames the issues and demonstrates the timeliness and importance of the issues associated with stem cell research. Next there is a general introduction by the editors. This introduction addresses the importance of this issue and the overall coverage of the book. Each part of the book also includes an "Editor's Introduction" to that part. In addition to the readings, the book also includes a section devoted to further reading, a glossary, and a section discussing the contributors. Given the technical nature of the material associated with the biology of stem cells, both my students and I found the glossary to be an indispensable aid to our understanding of the readings.

Part 1 is entitled "The Science of Stem Cells" and focuses on the general scientific concerns surrounding the stem cell debate. It starts out with a brief, but helpful introduction to the scientific context of the debate written by the National Institutes of Health entitled "Stem Cells: A Primer." Noteworthy among the remaining readings in part 1, is the second reading, "The Language Really Matters," by Jane Maienschein. She discusses the concepts associated with various terms such as embryo, fetus, cloning, and blastocyst. She then addresses how misuse and misunderstanding of such terms has contributed to many of the seemingly intractable difficulties connected with this debate.

Part 2,"Medical Cures and Promises," addresses the seeming potential of stem cell research and treatment. It includes readings from more general journalistic sources as well as more technical material. Noteworthy here is "Human Stem Cell Research and the Potential for Clinical Application," by the National Bioethics Commission. It focuses on the possible use of embryonic stem and embryonic germ cells in developing clinical treatments of diseases such as Parkinson's.

Part 3, "Moral Issues," addresses the moral implications of stem cell research and treatment and the possible connections between the stem cell and abortions debates. This is the most philosophically relevant section of the book. It starts out with a cautionary discussion by Michael Novak entitled "The Stem Cell Slide: Be Alert to the Beginnings of Evil." Both my students and I found Novak's piece overly simplistic and alarmist. The last three readings in this section address substantive moral issues in the context of formulating coherent policies concerning stem cell research. The most important and philosophical of these is "The Ethics and Policies of Small Sacrifices in Stem Cell research" by Glenn McGee and Arthur Caplan. This article nicely addresses the arguments of some of the other readings in part 3. In addition, McGee and Caplan try to disentangle the issues surrounding stem cell research from abortion debate and instead focuses on the notion of "moral sacrifices of human life."

Perhaps the most disappointing section of this book was Part 4, "Religious Issues." A number of the readings in this section consist of personal testimonies by religious representatives (and others) for the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. This section starts off with the "Testimony of Nathan Salley" that was originally presented to a subcommittee of the U. S. House of Representatives. Apparently, Nathan was a child who was successfully treated for leukemia using umbilical cord blood. He testifies that he views this as a viable alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells (which he opposes). The point of this reading seems to be to show that not all those who might benefit from stem cell research are in favor of such research. This reading seemed unhelpful and inappropriate both to me and to my students. Even when this reading is contrasted with the second reading in this section, "Patients' Voices: The Powerful Sound in the Stem Cell Debate" by Daniel Perry, it still seems to be of questionable relevance. The Perry reading focuses on organized patient support for stem cell research and on the sorts of diseases and numbers of people that might benefit from this research.

The other articles in Part 4 address the views of religious traditions including liberal Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. These views are conveyed primarily by testimonies from representatives of those religions. Unfortunately, these readings are quite brief and tend to be a bit sketchy. In general, they needed more detail and needed to communicate more of the grounds for these various religious views.

Part 5, "Policy Issues," extends the discussion of part 3 by addressing how public policy should reflect the ethical concerns arising out of stem cell research. The most noteworthy of the readings in this section were "The Politics and Ethics of Human Embryo and Stem Cell Research" by Kenneth J. Ryan and "Locating Convergence: Ethics, Public Policy, and Human Stem Cell Research" by Andrew W. Siegel. The Ryan reading clearly demonstrates how the political ramifications of the abortion debate have negatively influenced the stem cell debate. The Siegel reading focuses on trying to find amidst differing views concerning the moral status of early-stage embryos some common basis for allowing the destruction of at least some embryos for research purposes.

Overall, it seems that one of the seeming strengths of this anthology is also some thing of a weakness. Ruse and Pynes draw on a variety of sources ranging from newspaper and magazine articles to philosophical papers. Many of the readings are quite good, but much of the material in this book is also extremely brief and undetailed. This was especially the case concerning readings drawn from newspaper and magazine sources. Other readings were drawn from committee reports and suffered from the sort of overly legalistic bureaucratic language that one so often encounters in such reports.


2006 Kelly Joseph Salsbery


Kelly Joseph Salsbery, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Philosophy at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas (where he resides with his family).    



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