Ethical boundary-work in the embryonic stem cell laboratory


Address for correspondence: Dr Steven Wainwright, Division of Health and Social Care Research, King's College London, 57 Waterloo Road, London, SE1 8WA.


Most accounts of the ethics of stem cell research are de- contextualised reviews of the ethical and legal literature. In this chapter we present a socially embedded account of some of the ethical implications of stem cell research, from the perspectives of scientists directly involved in this area. Based on an ethnography of two leading embryonic stem cell laboratories in the UK, our data form part of the findings from a larger project mapping the scientific, medical, social and ethical dimensions of innovative stem cell treatment, focusing on the areas of liver cell and pancreatic islet cell transplantation. We explore three key issues: what individual scientists themselves view as ethical sources of human embryos and stem cells; their perceptions of human embryos and stem cells; and how scientists perceive regulatory frameworks in stem cell research. We argue that these dimensions of laboratory practice are all examples of ‘ethical boundary-work’, which is becoming an integral part of the routine practice and performance of biomedical science. Our work adds to the relatively few sociological studies that explore ethics in clinical settings and to an even smaller body of work that explores scientists’ views on the ethical issues relating to their research.