Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Calling all blastocysts

So the Congress is going to make the Preznit (who consitutes the single most compelling argument against intelligent design) veto a bill allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research without the current disabling restrictions. They might even be able to override a veto on this one.

I know the entire world is breathlessly awaiting my personal opinion, so here goes. On the one hand, I think it's so absurd that it's grimly comical to argue that the sixteen-cell entities that are destroyed in order to extract embryonic stem cells constitute "human life" or have any moral status whatsoever. It is particularly baffling that the people who insist on this delusional proposition derive it from their "Christian" faith, when obviously there is no support for it whatever anywhere in the Bible or even in Christian tradition until the late 19th Century. It's positively enraging that these same people seem to ascribe little or no moral status to actual living human children, when they are killed and maimed in their Glorious Leader's wars, tortured in front of their parents to extract information, or allowed to die of starvation, HIV or malaria because God doesn't want them to pay taxes to help foreigners, or to have governments messing with His sacred Free Market.

Most people already agree with me, so I don't need to go into the ethical questions. We've already won that one, and we already know that this is about pandering to a very narrow group of religious fanatics.

But I do want to point out that many people have severely exaggerated expectations for embryonic stem cells. Scientists are excited about the basic knowledge they can gain about human development from research with Embryonic Stem Cells -- although to be honest we can learn almost as much from work with other animals. In the long term, the really big excitement is that by cloning an individual using somatic cell nuclear transfer, and then extracting stem cells from the resulting embryo, we could grow whole new organs, which are perfect genetic matches and therefore do not require any immunosuppression in order to implant them. In other words, you develop heart failure, we just give you a brand new one.

Yes, that might be possible. It might also be possible without having to create embryonic stem cells at all. Maybe there are already cells in our body that could be induced to become heart tissue, or a new kidney, or a brand new spanking clean plaque-free coronary artery, or a knee joint, or even brain tissue. But whatever turns out to be possible, it's going to be expensive. And so:

-- It will drive up health care costs in the rich countries, probably dramatically;
-- It will not be available to poor people, and perhaps not even to moderate income people;
-- It might extend your life (or that of your loved ones or descendants), but it won't stop you from growing older, so while that new heart may give you a new lease on life, everything else will just keep on falling apart around it, and it won't make yo live forever. So next you'll need new arteries, and new kidneys, and maybe a new colon, and some new muscles, and . . . well, you get the idea.

We'll have some rich people walking around into their nineties with a lot of replacement parts -- if that category of "rich people" is going to include most Americans, that means the rest of the population will be paying ever higher taxes to make it happen -- until the framework falls apart or the brain finally turns to mush. And we'll have the rest of the world, 90% or so, who get bupkis from the whole thing. So, is this necessarily the best investment for our research dollar?

Something to think about.

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