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Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal
SJR: 0.123

ISSN Print: 2151-805X
ISSN Online: 2151-8068

Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal

DOI: 10.1615/EthicsBiologyEngMed.2013007578
pages 195-208

Presumptions of Scientific Knowledge in the Evolution of Ethical Policies for Nascent Individuals

James L. Sherley
The Adult Stem Cell Technology Center, P.O. Box 301179, Boston, MA 02130


There is a common belief that the best available scientific knowledge at the time played a significant role in informing the complex social ethics that guide and govern present-day medical practice and biomedical research involving nascent individuals like human embryos and fetuses. Herein, the validity of this prevalent view is considered from the perspective that it is a misplaced notion. The complexities and complications of medical and biomedical ethics and their integration into clinical and biomedical research practice are managed well by the local deliberations of hospital and university institutional review boards (IRBs), which comprise participants from diverse professional, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds, including medical and biomedical ethicists. Yet despite this richness of experience, expertise, motivation, and counsel in the local review and approval process for human subjects research protocols and clinical trials, external state and federal agencies and the acts of different branches of government ultimately dictate the policies that are applied. In particular, IRBs must adhere to the regulations, policies, and laws set down and enforced by administering agencies like the National Institutes of Health and all 3 branches of the federal government. When current scientific knowledge is excluded−most often at the government levelminus;a vertical misalignment can occur between the bioethics reasoning of IRBs and the government agency bioethics regulations they must follow, which creates seemingly inexplicable contradictory situations. This is the current state of affairs for the entwined vexing social issues of abortion rights and human embryo research, which can be explained as the consequences of a misinformed presumption that up-to-date scientific knowledge guides government decisions on the treatment of nascent individuals.