Charo: 'My work has focused on issues surrounding the beginning of life.'
Dr. Alta Charo has studied stem cells and related issues since the mid-1980s, rising to national prominence as a UW-Madison law and bioethics professor.
The author of some 100 articles, book chapters and government reports on topics ranging from research ethics to medical genetics law, Charo has also been a visiting professor at law and medical schools in eight countries, including France, China and New Zealand. Most recently she was a visiting professor at Berkeley School of Law.
In 1994 she served on the National Institute of Health's Human Embryo Research Panel, and from 1996-2001 she was a member of the presidential National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
Charo recently spoke to The Daily Page about how science can challenge longstanding beliefs, how some reconcile faith with scientific truth, and how the reproductive sciences are redefining what constitutes a family.
The Daily Page: As a bio-ethicist, what issues do you explore?
Charo: Bioethics concerns itself with the personal and policy implications of advances in the life sciences and medicine. Most of my work has focused on issues surrounding the beginning of life, encompassing family planning, using new reproductive technologies used to overcome infertility, abortion, genetic screening and research on the products of conceptions, such as embryos.
Why are Republicans so afraid of science, especially when it comes to stem-cell research?
I'm not sure that they're afraid of science. There are several things that can be challenging to some political ideologies.
First, science and technology research responds only to the perception of truth. If there is a search for an answer, the data takes you wherever the data takes you. And in its best form, the data is interpreted as objectively as possible. So that can be challenging to people with a political ideology because they may not like the answers that science gives and they can't control that.
Secondly, some areas of science actually challenge their cherished religious or political views. For example, many religions in the Western world posit that human beings were created by a deity that breathe the life into inanimate dust or some other type of creation story. When science examines things like in vitro fertilization, cloning, synthetic biology, the construction of artificial chromosomes, it directly addresses the question of whether life can be created without the intervention of a deity.
As in the debate surrounding evolution as a theory that explains the change over time of species and the emergence of species without the intervention of a deity, these new areas of science challenge the very origins of life itself.
The third important thing is that science and technology can offer new ways for people to interact, which can upset existing norms.... For example, if we use reproductive technologies to conceive children, using eggs and sperm that come from anonymous donors, we need to re-examine what it means to say that people are a family.
When that child is born to people who aren't genetically related, we have to more openly confront the degree to which we think of families as something that is a social construct.
With the challenges that science presents for some, how does one reconcile scientific truths with political or religious beliefs?
We don't necessarily. Some people never do, which is why we're still seeing people resist the teaching of evolution in schools or who are insistent that evolution be taught alongside a religious doctrine, as if science and religion are equivalent in their explanatory power or their basic underlying reasoning.
But that's at the personal level. The more interesting level is the policy level, which is what do we do with regard to public institutions, whether they're schools or the National Institute of Health funding mechanisms or the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. That is where the debate around the significance of scientific findings becomes far more important. And we've had very confused responses at the public policy levels.
Aside from stem cells, what other interesting issues are there with regenerative medicine?
Well the controversy of embryonic stem cells stems from the word "embryo." The vast majority of embryonic stem cell research uses embryos that are being discarded by couples who have made them at infertility clinics but who, for a variety of reasons, can no longer use them and for whom there is no adoptive couple available.
The real objection is to the fact that these embryos were going to be discarded to begin with. But that objection has not gotten any political traction, because that objection would lead to the conclusion that we should criminalize or ban infertility clinics and there's simply no public appetite for that. Too many people have used them to actually form their families.
So, instead the discussions have been focused not on the destruction of the embryo itself, which is an artifact of these infertility clinics, but on the destruction of the embryo in the course of doing research that might provide a cure for somebody someday.
That seems to me to be a really perverse turn of events, since now the argument is being lodged against the method of destruction and a method that actually has possibilities of enhancing the quality of human life, rather than the true problem, which is that we don't yet agree on whether or not it is acceptable for individual people to choose to destroy an embryo.