Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A blast from the blastocyst

I haven't written much about the whole embryonic stem cell thing, partly because I never saw it as the most pressing issue. The media and the public are obssessed with the possibilities for dramatic, high technology biomedical breakthroughs, but what we're really talking about are procedures that in a decade or two might benefit a small number of people in wealthy countries who have uncommon injuries or degenerative diseases associated with advanced age. The vast majority of the earth's people will never be able to afford these treatments, and they already are lacking in far more basic needs. Even in the wealthy countries, as a matter of fact, we can accomplish far more public health benefit for far less money with simple measures that we don't bother with. So while I have thought that restricting stem cell research on putative moral grounds is absurd, and the opposite of moral, I have had more important things to worry about.

However, I feel I should say something about the news that investigators believe they have created embryonic stem cells by reprogramming somatic cells, rather than by the somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning technique that the Catholic bishops and conservative Christian preachers swindlers consider to be the destruction of human life. I don't know why nobody is willing to say this publicly, but it is obvious that there is no basis for this claim whatsoever in the Bible or in Christian theology as it developed over the first 1,980 years or so. Apparently they all have a personal hotline to God, who called them up one afternoon and said "Zygotes are human beings. You know what you have to do." In other words, they're pulling it out of their asses.

Like most sensible people, I feel that the qualities that make an entity human in a morally meaningful way depend on a functional cerebral cortex, which embryos obviously lack. The preacher's swindler's claim is that zygotes and the embryos that develop from them have the potential to become a recognizable human being, and that potential alone endows them with the moral status of human beings. This can be reduced to the absurd with ridiculous ease, but for now let's pretend to accept it.

The swindler's are ecstatic this morning because the news gets them out of an awkward position. Opposition to stem cell research is politically unpopular and it was hurting their candidates at the polls. Now they claim the whole thing is resolved, not a problem, and they don't have to carry that piano.

I have potentially bad news for them. If these truly are embryonic stem cells, then it should not be very hard to induce them to form embryos. After all, once the zygote divides, you have nothing else but two embryonic stem cells, and they go on to form an embryo. The researchers have no interest in making embryos, so they haven't even tried to figure out how to get it to happen, but somebody probably will, because that will be a method for cloning humans. Actually it will produce a true clone, which somatic cell nuclear transfer does not, since in the latter case the clone does not have the same mitochondrial DNA as the individual who supplied the nucleus.

So these embryonic stem cells, as surely as cells derived from a zygote, are potential human life. The only distinction is that they have not started to form an embryo -- but neither has a zygote, which the swindler's claim is a human life merely because it has the potential to yield an embryo. As do these cells. So the moral parsing they are doing just gets finer, and finer, and more and more absurd. Thwart the potential of an embryonic stem cell to become a human being, and you're fine and dandy, still going to heaven. Thwart the potential of a zygote to become a human being, and you're a murderer, going to hell. How do we know this? Well, it must be in the Bible somewhere, you just have to look harder.

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