20 November 2007

The Stem Cell Story.

Much interesting commentary today about the good news regarding research in pluripotent stem cells, which has obviated the "need" to destroy human embryos as a source for those stem cells. To wit,

  • Fr. Thomas Berg: It’s called “reprogramming.”
    Another technical term for it is “somatic cell dedifferentiation.” Just get those terms into your vocabulary because they’ll be around for the foreseeable future. As reported in two scientific papers published today, reprogramming is now the future of stem cell research and renders ethically controversial therapeutic cloning obsolete.

    Ever since the debate of embryo-destructive stem-cell research began in earnest in 1998 when researchers at the University of Wisconsin first isolated human embryonic stem cells, we’ve known that the best overall answer to the ethical impasse would be a solution that both allows the search for stem-cell related cures to go foreword, while doing so without harming or destroying embryonic human life in the process.

    We now have that solution. (The whole thing.)
  • Jody Bottum: In other words, scientists may now be able to have the embryonic stem cells we’ve been told they need for research—without creating and destroying embryos to get them. If so, the argument is over.

    Or, maybe, the argument is just beginning, for this news turns on its head everything in what the nation’s newspapers have delivered to us as a story of blinkered pro-lifers vs. courageous scientists.

    The people who turn out actually to have believed in the power of science are the pro-lifers—the ones who said that a moral roadblock is not, in point of fact, an outrageous hindrance, for scientists will always find another, less-objectionable way to achieve their goals. President Bush’s refusal of federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines didn’t halt major stem-cell advances, any more than the prohibition against life-threatening research on human subjects, such as the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, stopped the advance of medical treatments.

    For those who attacked the pro-lifers in the name of science, however, things look a little different. As Maureen L. Condic explained to First Things readers this year in her careful survey, “What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells,” the promises of medical breakthroughs were massively overblown by the media.

    But there were reasons for all the hype. I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.

    With these purposes now severed by the Japanese de-differentiation technique, which way will it break? (The whole thing.)

  • President Bush: President Bush is very pleased to see the important advances in ethical stem cell research reported in scientific journals today. By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries. President Bush was the first president to make federal funds available for human embryonic stem cell research — and his policy did this in ways that would not encourage the destruction of embryos. In July 2006, the President highlighted research into the possibility of reprogramming adult skin cells into pluripotent stem cells without intruding on human embryos or eggs. The President’s Executive Order issued in June 2007 was intended to accelerate precisely the kind of research being reported today. One of the studies announced today was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health operating under the President’s stem cell policy. The President believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life. We will continue to encourage scientists to expand the frontiers of stem cell research and continue to advance the understanding of human biology in an ethically responsible way.
And Jonah Goldberg of the National Review posts provocative thoughts (which I'll quote in full) about the effect of perceived need on our moral vision:

I defer to the expertise of others that this is the big deal scientifically it appears to be. What I find fascinating about this — indeed, what I find fascinating about the role of technology generally (I've long wanted to write a big think piece on this) — is how necessity is not only the mother of invention, it's the father of immorality.

Because President Bush wisely placed limitations on one scientific path, scientists needed to come up with another route to the same goal. It now sounds like they found it. Huzzahs to everyone (Memo to the Communications Director: Bush should give a speech on this taking his share of the credit).

So now let's assume the best case scenario. Let's assume that creating embryos to destroy them is no longer "necessary" for the relevant science to proceed. As this truth sinks in, suddenly a lot more people are going to concede that there's something immoral or at least icky about creating embryos just to cannibalize their parts. Of course, because of the abortion debate, we won't get anything like unanimity on this point (some pro-choicers will never concede that there's much moral worth to embryos). But, since it's not necessary to create the embryos in order to proceed with stem cell research, most people will be much more likely to condemn the very idea of creating big eugenicky labs full of embryos. Imagine what a pro-life Hollywood could do with such dystopian fodder.

Or to change the example, look at child labor. America banned child labor only after mechanization, industrialization and education had progressed to a point where most people didn't need to put their kids to work. Once the necessity was gone for most Americans — particularly urban Americans — the ability to condemn the last vestiges of the practice as immoral increased enormously (which is why it was banned only when the practice had almost died out). As a philosophical point, if child labor is evil, it should have been more evil when, say, 95% of kids worked in dangerous conditions. And yet, socially and politically, the opposite was the case. Only when a mere 5% worked in dangerous conditions did the public suddenly become shocked that it was happening at all. In other words, only when kids don't need to work does it seem wrong to put them to work. Similarly, only when you don't need to create embryos to poach stem cells can a consensus form around the proposition that it is evil to create them to poach stem cells.

This is a very Whiggish point I'm making here about the nature of moral progress — or the perception of it — but I think it's really just a fascinating topic (with implications for everything from war to torture to even gay marriage) even if I'm not explaining it as well as I'd like. Perhaps some day.

My Sunday school class this past week was on our strategies of self-deception and rationalization to excuse our sin; I think I'll revisit the topic with Goldberg's post in hand.


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