Friday, April 30, 2021

Church or Science? Moral Authority in Stem Cell Research

Who decides what can be done in society and business? The conventional answer in Europe is that it was the church in medieval times, the state after that, and now it is a free-for-all with business having a prominent role. All parts of the conventional answer are inaccurate, and we know that the correct answer depends on the context. So, let us consider a context with very strong dividing lines: stem cell research. Stem cells are “primitive” cells that have not yet specialized into specific types, so they can be used to cure a wide range of medical conditions provided they can be coached into becoming a type of cell that needs to be replaced or repaired. They are also controversial cells because a primary source of stem cells for research and production is fetal tissue – early-stage embryos.

Church beliefs on what embryos are for and scientists’ ambitions to cure degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s clashed, and this conflict was examined by Joelle Evans in research published in Administrative Science Quarterly. In her study, a research laboratory encountered outside pressures against the stem cell research and reacted by having internal debates and forming a response. In so doing, the scientists took on a second role as creators and marketers of a moral stance explaining why stem cell research was valuable and how it should be done.

What she documented is an unusual role for scientists. More commonly, science is thought to be a free exploration of questions for which there is no moral judgment until the time comes to use the insights. This type of scientific handoff is very common, although it has been known to create complications in some cases – such as among the scientists who developed the atom bomb, with full knowledge of the purpose of their research.

Stem cell research is not nuclear physics and has no weapons application, but the question of what kind of raw materials can be used, and how they can be used, is fraught with moral problems. These moral problems have practical implications. For example, the USA has rich access to surplus blastocysts (pre-embryos) because in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures create more blastocysts than can be safely inserted. IVF clinics routinely destroy excess blastocysts because they are barred from turning them over for stem cell research. As of 2019, a few hundred stem cell lines had been approved for use, and these are called stem cell lines because each originates in a single blastocyst with cells that keep being reproduced.

The researchers in this study faced two debates. Externally, they faced criticism for their use of stem cells and calls to account for it morally. Internally, they differed in their views on what could and should be allowed, with the internal lines of contention being shaped by the external pressures. The need to make an external account for their work was unfamiliar for researchers and made complicated by their internal divisions.

How did they respond? Interestingly, the combination of external pressure and internal fissures helped the lead researchers formulate a set of moral values that they could justify through connecting with accepted forms of ethical reasoning and explain externally and internally.

This served two purposes. Externally, the scientists gained a role in defining the value of their work and the constraints on how it should be conducted. Internally, they unified an organization that could easily have become divided, maintaining motivation for the team members troubled by the apparent conflict of moral values. They achieved strength through unity while embracing the diversity of beliefs within their laboratory walls.

Evans J. 2011. How Professionals Construct Moral Authority: Expanding Boundaries of Expert Authority in Stem Cell Science. Administrative Science Quarterly Forthcoming.