Charis ThompsonJun 8, 2015
The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Research
MIT Press 2013
Charis Thompson's Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Research (MIT Press, 2013) is an important book. Good Science explores the "ethical choreography" of the consolidation of human embryonic stem cell research in the first decade of the twenty-first century, drawing important implications for the possible futures of stem cell research by looking carefully at its past and developing an approach to what Thompson calls "good science." The book compellingly argues that "a high level of political attention to the ethics of the life sciences and biomedicine...is a good thing for science and democracy," especially as we have now reached "the end of the beginning of human pluripotent stem cell research."
Part I of the book (Stem Cell Biopolitics) explores early attention to the embryo debate. Ch. 2 looks at stem cell research as it's widely understood to engage ethical concerns, describing the "pro-curial frame" of stem cell research in the period under scrutiny, when promoting stem cell innovation involved aspirations to be pro-cure and there was an ethical focus on the procurement of stem cells and cell lines for research. Pt. II of the book (Stem Cell Geopolitics) looks at what happened domestically as the debate over stem cells moved from the federal to the state levels and back in the US, and then turns to consider transnational circuits that were crucial to those practices and conversations. Ch. 3 looks at three phases that made up the beginning of human pluripotent stem cell research in the US: the time around President Bush's 2001 policy, the period when states "seceded" from that policy (exemplified by California's Proposition 71), and the period around Obama's 2009 policy. Ch. 4 looks at the transnational geopolitics of stem cell research in an era when stem cell research became increasingly international and research advocates were deeply concerned with international competition and "brain drain." Thompson takes readers into laboratory environments in South Korea and Singapore in order to undermine a popular rhetorical binary of East/West that contrasted an "East" that had a pro-science spirit and lack of concern with the moral status of the embryo, and a "West" that had been taken over by anti-science religious fanatics and technophobes.
Pt. III of the book (Thinking of Other Lives) looks carefully at questions of research subjecthood. Ch. 7 focuses on human-human relationships and practices of donation at a time when a number of norms came under renewed scrutiny - including altruism, anonymity, and the alienation of tissue from donors - and this led to the conclusion that the old model for donation wasn't working. In this context, there were increasing demands for reciprocity in various forms, and Thompson considers various models in California that rethought the relationships between donor/recipient and biomaterial/bioinformation. Ch. 6 focuses on the logic of using animals as substitutive research subjects for human-focused research, and calling for a move away from using animals as research subjects and toward using in vitro systems instead.
To do all of this, Thompson develops a methodology she calls "triage" which we talk about early in the interview. Good Science is a wonderful and critical book, and well worth reading and teaching widely!