Dear Thomas Murray:

For most of human history, people have believed that living things are different in some fundamental way from nonliving things. Even scientists held this belief, with the assumption that organic matter–present in plants and animals–could only be created by things that were already alive. This belief was shattered in the 19th century by chemists who learned how to synthesize organic molecules in the laboratory from inorganic starting material.

Today molecular biologists are busily deciphering the ways in which the thousands of different molecules within individual cells interact through enormously complex molecular networks. While it will be some time before we understand all these interactions, one thing is already clear: Molecules in living cells all follow the same exact physical laws as molecules within inanimate matter. Remarkably, many otherwise highly educated people still believe in some vague notion of a vital force that has never been observed and is not needed to explain the life of cells.

Until 1997, there was still near-universal belief that the one-cell human embryo was different in some fundamental way from other cells in your body because it alone had the potential to form a new human life. Based on this perceived difference, many bioethicists were willing to grant the one-cell human embryo special respect and protection from experimentation.

On Feb. 27 of that year, Dolly, the first animal cloned from an adult cell, was announced to the world. But what was missed by most people in the media fanfare was the revolutionary implication that this one animal had for the status of human embryos. In one fell swoop, Dolly’s birth shattered the illusion of a sharp line separating human cells with the potential to form a new life from those without such potential.

This revolution in biological understanding has yet to penetrate the sanctum of President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Board (chaired by the president of my own university, Harold Shapiro). Clinton recently asked the NBAC to report on the ethics of a new method for converting adult cells to embryoniclike stem cells (called ES cells) for research into tissue regeneration. The NBAC concluded that ES cell research was permissible because ES cells didn’t seem to have the potential to form new living beings. But, it added, “If it were possible for a child to develop from these fused cells, then profound ethical issues would be raised.”

While I certainly support human ES cell research, the NBAC report is flawed factually and logically. Mouse ES cells have already been converted directly into baby mice, and thus human ES cells could be converted into baby boys and girls. But then there’s no scientific reason why you couldn’t convert the cells you blow out of your nose into a baby (assuming you are a woman, or could convince one to carry the fetus for nine months).

It is time to draw away the curtains and reveal the true meaning of the expression “potential for human life.” It is a euphemism for the religious concept of a spirit that many people believe is placed into a human embryo by God. NBAC would be better served, and could serve the country better, if it accurately depicted the science and avoided religion in its analysis of ethical issues related to biomedical research.

Lee Silver