Bioethics questioned at PSU Weekend

“What kind of world do we want to live in?” This question was the foundation for a presentation on bioethics at PSU Weekend. The topic was designed as an in-depth look at the issues that surround cloning, stem-cell research and artificial insemination.

The question was posed by Patricia Backlar, research associate professor of bioethics, and philosophy professor at Portland State University. Backlar is also the assistant director at the Center for Ethics in Healthcare at OHSU, and a member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

Backlar has written over 50 journal articles on biomedical research, and was appointed by President Clinton to research the possibilities of cloning human beings.

Approximately 30 people attended the event, which consisted of a 30-minute lecture followed by an open discussion period involving the audience.

Backlar began by defining the term cloning and by giving a brief history.

The presentation then turned to the moral and ethical dilemmas that surround the topic.

“Cloning means simply to make a copy,” Backlar explained. “It does not need to be a reproduction of a complete being, it can be an asexual copy of a molecule, cell, tissue, plant or animal.” Cloning became famous nearly five years ago when a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned in Europe.

This scientific achievement is what spurred Clinton to appoint the National Bioethics Committee.

“President Clinton wanted a full report with advice on human cloning in 90 days. It may seem like a long time, but for such a complex topic it was a race. We didn’t sleep much, but we did complete an extensive report on the subject. We focused on the legal and religious implications, and concluded that given the current state of science any attempt at cloning humans would be very dangerous.”

Based on their report, Clinton banned the use of federal funds for human cloning, and asked private companies to voluntarily cease to pursue it.

Backlar contends that there will never be an exact duplicate of a human being because environment plays such a large part in the development of people. She says the emphasis should be placed on therapeutic cloning, as opposed to reproductive cloning. Therapeutic cloning is what is now commonly referred to as stem-cell research. According to Backlar, therapeutic cloning may one day cure degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Backlar briefly discussed other controversial scientific advancements, such as AID, IVF and PGD. AID stands for Artificial Insemination by Donor, and is responsible for 60,000 births annually. IVF is In-Vitro Fertilization and is a technique used for 15,000 births a year. PGD is Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, a process by which only healthy embryos are implanted. This eliminates the risk of implantation of embryos that may carry diseases.

Without choosing sides, Backlar pointed out the positive of these scientific advances, claiming that the more people know of their genetic makeup the healthier they could potentially be. Discussions began amongst the crowd, with people posing different concerns regarding the social and ethical repercussions of biomedical research. Most of the sentiments came back to the original question from Backlar, the question she used to start the entire discussion: “What kind of world do we want to live in?”