Collins is one of the most influential scientists in America today. He previously headed the Human Genome Project -- the massive federal project to decode the genetic structure of human life. President Barack Obama nominated Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health on July 8, 2009, and he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate just a month later. At the time, several leading scientists voiced their opposition to his nomination, citing concerns about Collins's identification as an evangelical Christian. Several critics expressed particular concern about his position on the use of cells drawn from human embryos in stem cell research -- an enterprise that falls under NIH supervision.
This question is particularly pressing given the fact that President Obama had pledged to lift restrictions President George W. Bush had placed on federal funding for such research. President Obama did that on March 9, effectively changing the federal government's position on the moral status of the human embryo.
There should have been no surprise when proponents of human embryonic stem cell experimentation raised questions about where Francis Collins stands on the question. A look at his published comments raised more questions than were resolved. In his book The Language of God, he wrote:
Many observers who are otherwise opposed to human embryo research have argued, however, that despite the likely ultimate destruction of excess embryos after IVF, the desire of a couple to have a child is such a strong moral good that it justifies the procedure. That may well be a defensible position, but if so, it challenges the principle that the inevitable destruction of human embryos should be avoided at all costs, no matter what the potential benefits.
The language Dr. Collins employed here, such as "may well be a defensible position," is anything but clear, but he was clear in questioning "the principle that the inevitable destruction of human embryos should be avoided at all costs."
In a 2006 interview, Dr. Collins said, "I would be opposed to the idea of creating embryos by mixing sperm and eggs together and then experimenting on the outcome of that, purely to understand research questions." He went on to raise, "on the other hand," his concern that "there are hundreds of thousands of such embryos in freezers at in vitro fertilization clinics." He continued:
In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely. The plausibility of those ever being reimplanted in the future - more than a few of them - is extremely low. Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people? I think that's not been widely discussed.
In 2001, he told Christianity Today:
It is a classic example of a collision between two very important principles. One is the sanctity of human life and the other is our strong mandate as human beings to alleviate suffering and to treat terrible diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal-cord injury. The very promising embryonic stem-cell research might potentially provide remarkable cures for those disorders. We don't know that, but it might. And at the same time, many people feel, I think justifiably, this type of research is taking liberties with the notion of the sanctity of human life, by manipulating cells derived from a human embryo.
Once again, Dr. Collins employed language that offers moral angst without even a glimmer of clarity. Does he or does he not believe that the moral status of the human embryo precludes its destruction for medical research? What now becomes clear is that Dr. Collins is explicitly unwilling to affirm that it does.
Throughout the confirmation process, Collins appeared to reassure scientists that he would support the President's policy. That assurance was made clear on December 2, when Dr. Collins announced the NIH approval of the first 13 additional stem cell lines for federally funded research. Collins said:
"I am happy to say that we now have human embryonic stem cell lines eligible for use by our research community under our new stem cell policy. . . . In accordance with the guidelines, these stem cell lines were derived from embryos that were donated under ethically sound informed consent processes. More lines are under review now, and we anticipate continuing to expand this list of responsibly derived lines eligible for NIH funding."
In making his statement about the new cell lines for federally funded research, Collins defended his policy with very strange language. As The Washington Post reported, Collins said, "I think that there is an argument to be made that what is being done is ethically acceptable, even if you believe in the inherent sanctity of the human embryo."
An argument can be made? Arguing that "an argument can be made" is no substitute for making the argument. Dr. Collins must now take personal responsibility for the use of additional stem cell lines that required the destruction of human embryos. When he says that such research is conducted according to "ethical" guidelines he is repeating the pattern of President Obama, who limits the "ethical" concern to the fact that the human embryos were derived with donor consent. In another evasion, the NIH is prevented by congressional action from funding the actual destruction of the embryo, so it allows other entities to fund that process, taking over after the embryo is destroyed.
Writing at The Public Discourse, Union University philosophy professor Justin D. Barnard sets the issue with refreshing clarity:
Collins needs to come clean. Either he upholds the dignity of human life or he doesn't. If he does, and he accepts the nomination to head the NIH, then it seems that he is deeply compromised as a professing evangelical Christian. If he does not, then the evangelical community needs to know. For his appointment to this position has the potential to cause great harm in the way of moral confusion to many unsuspecting evangelicals as long as his views on nascent human life remain veiled behind a cloud of sophistical rhetoric.
Ethical responsibility demands that we never take refuge behind arguments about human dignity that are parsed with language such as "an argument can be made" and "may well be a defensible position." The argument must be made that any destruction of a human embryo is morally indefensible as it subverts the dignity of every single human being. Arguing that such a subversion of human dignity "may well be a defensible position" is itself indefensible. Dr. Collins does need to come clean.
Then again, actions often do speak louder than words. The action of the National Institutes of Health announced yesterday by Dr. Collins is tragically clear.
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"Where Does Dr. Collins Stand on Stem-Cell Research?," her.meneutics, July 13, 2009.
Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Francis Collins Confronts Ethics of Embryo Research," USA Today, "Faith & Reason," December 3, 2009.
Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health.