"There's a long history of using science to get around religious issues, otherwise we'd be sitting in the dark on the Sabbath," said Laurie Zoloth, a medical ethicist at Northwestern University, at the Genetics and Public Policy Center panel last week. "Whenever you have an absolute rule in a rule-based system," she said, whether in observant Judaism or in following the federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, people "figure out some way to stay within the confines of the rule" and still do what they want to do. These latest experiments, she said, were "something like tofu cheeseburgers," a compromise created for Jews following kosher laws that forbid mixing meat and dairy in the same meal.
And scientific good can come from adjusting to ethical concerns, as the example of animal experimentation shows. Not only were research results more reliable when the laboratory animals were subjected to less stress in response to activists' concerns, but when non-animal models were used instead, the experiments were often less costly and more easily reproduced.
Could a good outcome happen with stem cell research, too, as investigators begin designing experiments to satisfy their critics? Perhaps. But there's a greater danger here than there was with animal experimentation. The danger is that stem cell scientists will address what they believe to be their critics' major stumbling blocks in a way that both subverts the science and fails to respond to the critics -- the worst of both worlds. "How many hoops do you have to go through as a scientist," George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard University, was quoted as saying when the Nature articles appeared, "when you don't think you are doing anything wrong?" It's in trying to parse out religious objections they don't always share or even understand that scientists can run into trouble.