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Does Ethics Apply in a Petri Dish?

Posted Feb 01 2012 2:35pm

By Center for Bioethics Fellow Dr. Heather Kuruvilla:

Most people think of cell biologists as bench scientists who grow things in little dishes. As a university professor training future cell biologists, I wondered about my students’ perceptions of the need for an ethical framework. I asked my advanced students for their feedback on the pressing ethical issues in our field. Here are some of their ideas:

  1. The origin of the cells we work on matters.  We would find it morally problematic to help destroy embryos for stem cell research. Similarly, we would be opposed to using tissue obtained from induced abortions for research.
  2. The stewardship of creation matters.  Genetic modification of crops, as well as genetic therapies for disease, may have unintended consequences. While all of us see the potential good in producing more food or curing disease, our knowledge of outcomes is limited. We must be careful stewards of these techniques.
  3. Living creatures matter. Therefore, we should be wise in our use of resources. How drugs are tested impacts human beings as well as animals, and our use of  medications may impact the environment. We should develop research strategies that protect the environment and our fellow living creatures.
  4. The gift of human procreation matters. Not all birth control methods protect the unborn. We wish to use, study, and develop family planning technologies consistent with a high view of human persons. Genetic screening and other forms of testing may allow for informed decision making. However, we regret that some persons may use test results as a basis for abortion

Ethical standards mentioned by my students include defending human life in its earliest forms, stewardship of the world around us, valuing all of God’s creation, and thinking deeply about how we procreate. Apparently, ethics does apply in a Petri dish after all.  Aren’t you relieved?

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