Ethics of Human Embryo Research in USA


A review of Experiments in Democracy: The Science, Politics and Ethics of Human Embryo Research in the United States, 1978-2007, by James Benjamin Hurlbut.

In his dissertation, Ben Hurlbut provides a fascinating overview of the intersection of science, ethics, and politics in the United States. Through a rich analysis of controversy surrounding human embryo research from 1978-2007, he makes a compelling larger argument about the changing relationship between science, technology, and American democracy. Hurlbut shows that much more than the moral status of the embryo and the promise of biomedical research was at stake over three decades. His excellent study provides an original contribution to our understanding of how science relates to democratic decision-making and moral pluralism in the contemporary United States.

The dissertation is divided into six chapters that map onto critical phases of embryo politics in the United States. The first chapter moves from the 1960s to around 1980, and traces both the progress of laboratory work with embryos – most dramatically validated by the birth of the first child by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in 1978 – and the creation of first national regulatory and ethical advisory bodies. The chapter charts the emergence of a restrictive embryo research regime in the public sector alongside unregulated private sector.

The second chapter takes the story through the mid-1990s and tracks the successful spread of IVF as an infertility treatment and parallel efforts by the American Fertility Society to develop a moral framework and vocabulary designed to build and sustain public support for necessary embryo research. It also traces the 1994-95 controversy surrounding the Clinton administration’s unsuccessful efforts to win approval for federal funding for research involving the destruction of embryos.

The third chapter examines the period 1996-2002, which was dominated by controversy surrounding cloning and embryonic stem cell technology.  Scientific breakthroughs and the hope for a new era of regenerative medicine sparked a debate that culminated with President George W. Bush’s 2001 decision to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The chapter shows how two federal ethics bodies,  the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under Bill Clinton and the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) under George W. Bush, adopted very different approaches to ethical deliberation and public reason in formulating their recommendations. Chapter 4 illustrates some of the tensions that emerged in the PCB on the issue of cloning.

Chapters 5 and 6 move from the national to the state level and outline efforts to approve public funding for embryonic stem cell research outside the confines of the federal budget. Chapter 5 focuses on the passage of Proposition 71 in California in 2004, and on the shifting array of scientific, ethical, and religious arguments that helped to generate a winning political coalition. Chapter 6 tracks controversies that followed the victory of pro-research forces and were more focused on the organization and accountability of science on sensitive issues funded with taxpayer dollars.

Together, these chapters elegantly develop three interlocking themes; first, the embryo as research object and its place in wider biomedical and scientific research agendas, primarily but not exclusively related to IVF; second, the changing political context, with a focus on struggles over public funding that erupted after the isolation of human embryonic stem cells in 1998; and third, the shifting contours of national ethics bodies that incorporated evolving understandings of public reason and the proper role of scientific expertise and policy deliberation in American democracy.

While the material is wide-ranging, Hurlbut weaves together a coherent and compelling story about embryo research in its wider scientific, ethical, and social and political contexts. In the process he demonstrates an impressive command of – and makes important contributions to – several different literatures, including Science and Technology Studies, postwar American history, and democratic political theory.

The democratic theory implications are particularly striking.  Hurlbut shows how successive national ethics committees embodied different conceptions of scientific authority, public reason, and how align them in practice. That evolution, he argues persuasively, is not explicable solely in terms of shifting political winds; it was a response to new scientific and technological developments shaped simultaneously by  evolving ideas about deliberation and democracy in American society and politics. Hurlbut concludes that “These experiments in democracy warrant as much historical attention as the laboratory experiments they intended to address” (p. 360). His focus on democratic experimentation – alongside and in response to scientific practice – is a valuable contribution to our understanding not only of embryo politics, but of the fast-changing relationship between science, technology, and politics in our contemporary world.

Thomas Banchoff
Director, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs
Professor, Department of Government and School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University

Primary Sources

Federal and State Public Records (Policy Documents, advisory body hearing transcripts, congressional and legistlative hearing transcripts, etc)
US National Archives
Private Archives and Published Literature

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 387pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Jasanoff.


Image: A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 cell line (NIH code: WA09), viewed at 10X with Carl Zeiss Axiovert scope. Wikimedia Commons.

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