The ethics of cellular reprogramming

Cellular Reprogramming 25 (forthcoming)
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Louise Brown's birth in 1978 heralded a new era not just in reproductive technology, but in the relationship between science, cells, and society. For the first time, human embryos could be created, selected, studied, manipulated, frozen, altered, or destroyed, outside the human body. But with this possibility came a plethora of ethical questions. Is it acceptable to destroy a human embryo for the purpose of research? Or to create an embryo with the specific purpose of destroying it for research? In an attempt to construct ethical and legal frameworks for the new era of cellular reprogramming, legislators and ethicists have tried to distinguish between different kinds of biological entity. We treat cells differently depending on whether they are human or animal, somatic cells or gametes, and on whether they are embryos or not. But this approach to the ethics of cellular reprogramming is doomed to failure for the simple reason that cellular reprogramming in itself destroys the distinctions that the law requires to function. In this article, we explore the historical trajectory of cellular reprogramming and its relationship with ethics and society. We suggest that the early hype of embryo research has not obviously fulfilled expectations, but since new avenues of research are continuously opening, it is hard to say definitely that these promises have been broken. We explore the forthcoming challenges posed by the creation of DNA from scratch in the laboratory, and the implications of this for understandings of identity, privacy, and reproduction. We conclude that while ethics used to seek answers in biological facts, this is no longer possible, and a new approach is required.

Author Profiles

Anna Smajdor
University of Oslo
Adrian Villalba
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (PhD)


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