Promises, Promises

Embryo Politics
Ethics and Policy in Atlantic Democracies
Thomas Banchoff
Cornell University Press, $35, 294 pp.

The debate over embryonic stem cells will surely go down in history as one of the great struggles of...well, what was (and is) it all about? It can be read as a clash between the liberating forces of scientific progress and repressive religion. Or as a case study in the way ethical issues posed by medical research get played out, and often distorted, when they become politicized. Or it might be framed as a striking instance of the power of national histories and cultures to shape public policy—that, at least, is how Thomas Banchoff, a professor of government at Georgetown University, understands how different national communities have dealt with the issue.

Banchoff looks at how embryonic stem-cell research has been debated and is conducted in four major countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. The main outline of his narrative goes like this: In 1966 Drs. Edwards and Steptoe successfully fertilized a human egg outside the womb (IVF). In 1978, their work culminated in the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby. Research that had been born in controversy ended with a great triumph, effectively wiping out conservative resistance and leading, by now, to hundreds of thousands of children conceived by IVF. One conclusion many of us drew at that time was that, whatever the ethical objections to the new medical technology, if it was successful in relieving important problems, it would...

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About the Author

Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.