Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stem cell wars - it's the science stupid!

The current uproar over new developments in stem cell research is nothing short of hilarious. What happened: scientists in labs in California/Japan and Wisconsin, using slightly different techniques, managed to produce pluripotent cells without relying on the destruction of 10-14 day old embryos in the process. Researchers have long been excited about these pluripotent cells as they can grow into all sorts of damaged or destroyed human tissue. In other words, the potential for medical breakthroughs using such cells is very substantial indeed.

The God squad has been vigorously (not to say viciously) opposed to the old-fashioned way of producing such cells, because embryos 10-14 days after conception would be destroyed in the process of extracting pluripotent stem cells. In God's mind this was terrible research, because according to God's representatives down here on earth these cell accumulations (called embryos) should be treated as if they were persons. Well, a few hundred cells don't display any of the dispositions we'd usually require to be present for a given entity to be called a person. God doesn't seem to know this. I tried to contact God for some time, but there doesn't seem to be any email details available to engage God in a discussion about God's views on embryo research. God's earthly representatives only refer to God's authority to explain why embryos - at whatever developmental stage - must not be destroyed. So, a serious argument about the ethics or otherwise of the matter could never be had, because the authority driving so much of the 'holy embryo' stance remains somewhat elusive.

As I write this the religious commentators claim that their ethical stance has been 'winning' on this matter, and science showing how 'right' they were all along. This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First off, it's highly unusual for this particular group of people to respect science at all - well, unless it supports their slightly warped view of the world (where evolution didn't take place, and where we humans - helped ever so slightly by, you guessed it, 'God' - popped into existence just a few thousand years ago). So I doubt they're well advised to suddenly pick scientific progress of the sorts explained above as proof of the truth of their ethical stance. After all, what are they going to do next time science contradicts their view of the world. Scientific truth is not really a pick-and-choose type activity. They can't have their cake and eat it, I'd think.
  • Secondly, the research in question, good news as it is, suffers some serious drawbacks at the moment, including a higher risk of cancer in mice in which pluripotent cells that were derived by the new method were implanted. This drawback might be temporary, time will tell.
  • Thirdly, most scientists working in the field still agree that we will not be able to progress significantly without some form of destructive embryonic research continuing. In other words, pretending that the ethics wars over the moral status of embryos have suddenly concluded due to a new 'ethical' method of producing pluripotent cells having been found is grossly misleading.

I am somewhat disappointed that those high-profile ethicists who campaigned in favor of destructive embryonic stem cell research (while there seemed no viable scientific alternative) have been awkwardly silent in their response to these new findings. The truth is, however, that the position they held at the time was correct. If scientific progress permits us now to achieve the same objective without destroying embryos, that's excellent news and should be applauded by them, too. The reason for this is not at all, of course, that the 'holy embryo' crowd was right all along, but rather, that crucial biomedical research can now progress much faster without God's earthly troopers interfering a great deal. That's great news and more than enough reason to applaud the new developments!


  1. What it means is that many smart people have wasted tons of time and resources, and will waste yet more, just to get back to where we started.

    I wonder what the anti-science crowd will oppose next?

  2. Well said, Udo. For my own part, I'm having a busy week and haven't had a chance to this through very far, but my thoughts are along the same lines as yours. Why similar things have not yet been said by people are more likely to be approached for sound bites is not clear.

  3. I believe it will take several years before scientists are confident that these stem cells are just as good as any that come from an early embryo.

    It must also be stated that the latest work coming from labs in Japan and the US does not end the dilemma of cloned babies. James Thomson, one of the lead scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he hoped the work might help end the controversy over human cloning. However, he also accepted that the new stem cells could be manipulated so they turned into viable embryos that could theoretically be implanted into the womb to produce a baby.

    No one, of course, involved in this research wants to do this, and this is clearly not their intention. It would be wise, though, to admit that this possibility exists and that the prospect of cloned human babies has not gone away. This is why a global ban on reproductive cloning is sorely needed.

  4. "I tried to contact God for some time ...". Udo, Udo Udo - of course the old guy (well, the general consensus seems to be that it's a guy) doesn't give out his email to just anybody. But the God representatives I know tell me he does indeed have a computer up there, complete with resplendent and well-worn SMITE key - something that certain agnostics should maybe bear in mind, hehehe ...

  5. Clara, I'm puzzled by your comment. 'd say that an international ban on reproductive cloning is about the last thing we need. Unless you have in mind a merely interim ban while the technology is made safe, legal prohibitions on cloning are something to fight against.

    I'm dismayed that there has been so much opposition to the idea of reproductive cloning, and I've been opposing bans on it, somewhat ineffectually, for the past decade. John Harris is doing a better job than I am, so I'll refer you to his work on the subject.

    But really, bans on reproductive cloning are exactly the kind of moralistic overreaching in the law that merits our strong opposition.

    We should not want moralism to take over public policy. Where criminal prohibitions are concerned, we have every reason to adopt the Millian approach of demanding evidence of direct, significant, secular harm to others. We should never ban something merely because it is "immoral" (which usually ends up getting assessed according to yuck factor responses or some theological standard). A ban on reproductive cloning - where it is not seriously possible to find direct, significant, secular harm to others - creates a troubling precedent.

  6. Well, Russell, let's just agree to disagree on this one. Theology, or the yuck factor, don't come into it as far as I'm concerned; I just find cloning unethical, be it human or other animal.

  7. Fortunately, we don't need God or religion to understand the elementary scientific fact that fertilization brings about a new embryonic human being.

    Oh, did I just goof up the whole God tangent you were going on? Oops!

  8. What you goofed up is the distinction between person and human being. You're welcome to call 5 cells a human being and I won't squibble with you about words. A person a 5 cell human being is not.

  9. LOL


    Should we really take anything he has to say seriously?


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