TR: How does mutating an embryo so it is no longer a viable embryo really solve the problem?
WH: That is exactly the wrong way to frame the description of what’s being done. The idea that we’re mutating an embryo is an inaccurate and misleading representation of what we’re doing. The key to the project is that no embryo is ever created. It’s not a deficiency in an embryo but an insufficiency in the starting component, such that it cannot rise to the level of a living being.
TR: Shinya Yamanaka and others are having success reprogramming adult skin cells into embryonic stem cells. Why should we continue with ANT?
WH: Yamanaka’s cells are very, very interesting and may solve the issue of how to procure embryonic-type stem cells. But altered nuclear transfer takes things back to the very beginning, to the single-cell stage. So ANT would give us the ethical framework and technological tools for probing early development, without the creation and destruction of human embryos.
TR: Are there circumstances that you could imagine under which you might condone embryonic-stem-cell research?
WH: I’m in no sense an opponent of research with embryonic stem cells as such. I have moral concerns about how the stem cells are obtained, not about the use of the cells themselves. I’m not in favor of the destruction of human embryos for research purposes.
TR: What are the ethical and moral issues we face in neuroscience?
WH: One of the most fundamental questions is how you correlate the neurological development during embryogenesis with moral standing. Some people argue that until you have a conscious being, or maybe a self-conscious being, you don’t have moral value. We don’t know exactly what consciousness is, but most neurophysiologists don’t think there’s consciousness present before 18 or 20 weeks at the earliest. If that’s your criterion, you could probably justify the instrumental use of human embryos up to maybe 20 weeks. So without a strong moral principle, you may very well see the argument over stem-cell research move from 14 days to later stages. So at least at the federal-funding level, we should preserve the principle of the defense of human life from its earliest origins in the one-cell stage.