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The ethics of stem cell research: can the disagreements be resolved?
  1. Jan Helge Solbakk1,
  2. Søren Holm2
  1. 1
    Section for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway
  2. 2
    Cardiff Law School, UK, and Section for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway
  1. Søren Holm, Cardiff Law School, Museum Avenue, Cardiff CF10 3AX, UK; holms{at}cardiff.ac.uk

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It is now 10 years ago that human embryonic stem cell research appeared as a major topic of societal concern following significant scientific breakthroughs.1 2 During these 10 years it has become obvious that stem cell research is embedded in a narrative characterised by hope and hype and that it has created heated moral and political debate. Although it would be tempting to try to deconstruct the importance attributed to hope in this story or to unmask the different instigators active in promoting hype,35 the main aim of this editorial is to briefly review the controversies underlying the debate and propose some possible answers to a set of inter-related questions:

  • What are the main disagreements in the stem cell debate?

  • Is there any hope that we can resolve these main disagreements?

  • Has the debate been a fruitful model for future debates about ethically contentious issues in biomedicine, or has it been characterised more by rhetoric than by argument?

  • What kind of ethical debates are most efficient as models for future debates?

The two authors agree with regard to the importance of asking these questions, but they disagree about at least some of the answers. Let us start with the questions about the debate and its use as a model for future debates.

WHAT KIND OF ETHICAL DEBATE IS MOST EFFICIENT AS A MODEL FOR FUTURE DEBATES?

Could it be the case that ethical debates that are characterised by overselling of the potential of the technology are more efficient as models for future debates about ethically contentious issues in biomedicine than more sober and “neutral” debates? The narratives of stem cell research are full of examples of overselling and underselling, and we will suggest that it is precisely for this reason that there is a lot to learn morally from reviewing the narratives. The two main forms of overselling are

  • therapeutic …

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