Sitting In On a Great Debate

Sitting In On a Great Debate

BC psychologist tackled stem cell, cloning issues during her stint on bioethics commission

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Psychologist Diane Scott-Jones had barely taken her seat on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission when headlines in 1997 trumpeted the cloning of a sheep named Dolly.

Prof. Diane Scott-Jones (Psychology): "We need ethics as good as our science. We need dialogue." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
At the news, a colleague at Temple University, where Scott-Jones then taught, remarked: "I just heard your workload increased."

Indeed. Her panel was given 90 days to prepare a report for President Clinton on the ethics of human cloning, an assignment that would entail gathering testimony from expert after expert, and as Scott-Jones - now a professor in BC's Psychology Department - recalled, "getting up at four in the morning to read all the articles."

The scenario repeated itself in 1998 when newspaper speculation on the potential uses of human stem-cell research led President Clinton to order a similarly thorough document on ethical issues in that area.

By the time its five-year term ended this past Oct. 2, the 17-member advisory commission appointed by President Clinton had produced six reports on various areas of bioethics.

Scott-Jones, meanwhile, had found herself deeply involved in national debate on two hot-button topics, cloning and stem-cell research, that combined promise of medical breakthroughs with vexing ethical dilemmas.

She said the experience has informed her current research as a developmental psychologist specializing in family issues, while strengthening her vision of American democracy.

"We had to get used to addressing important issues in a very public way," she said. "As a public commission, you listen to disparate views and you try to come to a conclusion. This is quintessentially American.

"We try to have empathy, to grasp a person's perspective, knowing it's different from yours. We're pluralistic. America allows for divergent voices. That's the hope and promise of America.

"We need ethics as good as our science. We need dialogue," said Scott-Jones, who took part in an Oct. 4 panel discussion on the ethics of stem-cell research hosted by the Jesuit Institute.

She and others on the Clinton-appointed commission did not play a significant role in President Bush's deliberations this past year on stem-cell research, the new president choosing to rely on his own advisors, Scott-Jones said.

But in 1999 the commission issued guidelines for federally funded research involving stem cells that expressed qualified support for such research. Scott-Jones said the guidelines would allow the use of embryonic stem cells from legally aborted fetuses, and with parental consent, from embryos set aside at fertility clinics, but would ban commercial trade in embryos or their creation solely for scientific research.

Scott-Jones concurred. "Research should proceed with great caution in ways that are acceptable to the majority of Americans," she said.

The psychologist is currently participating in a project at the Hastings Center, an ethics think-tank in Garrison, NY, on genetic ties and the fate of the human family. She is writing a paper on the role of biological-relatedness in child rearing, a study of interest in the field of adoption.

"To me, as a developmental psychologist, the story of how human beings become what they are is a story of great complexity and beauty," she said. "It is an extraordinary journey that people take from childhood to adulthood."

Scott-Jones took her doctorate in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and maintains a strong interest in the ethics of research. She helped the American Psychological Association revise its guidelines for research on human subjects, and was involved with the presidential bioethics commission in drafting guidelines in the same area.

A focus of her current research is family socialization, particularly the way in which children develop a sense of belonging to a particular ethnic group. She also studies teenage childbearing, and has just finished a term as editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Parenting, said Scott-Jones, whose son, Malcolm, is now in his 30s, has had great bearing on her work as a scholar. "It allows you to see up close and firsthand all you teach as a developmental psychologist. And it shows you don't have control over everything. No matter how much you plan, there are elements you can't control."

Her outlook was also shaped by her upbringing as "a good Sunday School girl" at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in her hometown of Lenoir, NC, during the segregation era, and her resulting participation as an African-American in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"I think that having that kind of background gives you a respect for human life, and for other people," Scott-Jones said. "You grew up with an idea of the hope and promise of society."

Scott-Jones said she was drawn to developmental psychology in the hope of encouraging social change, though she has since found that "change does not occur on a schedule.

"I still have hope that we can find our better selves," she said.


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