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    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    The Stem Cell Wars - Still Ongoing: Last week, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he described the belief that an embryo is human as nonsensical, or in his words, this "nonsensical concept of what 'human' means." He later explained what to be human is to him:

    In his State of the Union speech, President Bush went on to observe that "human life is a gift from our creator — and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Putting aside the belief in a "creator," the vast majority of the world's population takes a similar stance on valuing human life. What is at issue, rather, is how we are to define "human life." Look around you. Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else?

    Most humans practice a kind of dualism, seeing a distinction between mind and body. We all automatically confer a higher order to a developed biological entity like a human brain. We do not see cells, simple or complex — we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. It doesn't yet have the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years. Until this is understood by our politicians, the gallant efforts of so many biomedical scientists, as good as they are, will remain only stopgap measures.

    This week, two other members of the same Council reply:

    It will not do to opine that a living human embryo of the sort all of us once were (which Gazzaniga prefers to characterize as "that thing in a petri dish") cannot be a member of our community, entitled to the same protections as the rest of us, unless and until it has acquired "the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years" without offering any serious discussion of what this means for newborns, for those afflicted by retardation, and for those suffering from dementia.

    It will not do to opine that the distinction between body and brain is decisive for determining whose life should be protected without even considering whether the living and developing human body ought not elicit from us a kind of reverence and respect that would keep us from simply using it in the service of our goals, even praiseworthy goals.

    Gazzaniga is, of course, not alone in failing to engage in the kind of serious reflection we need right now (though as an informed scholar he does bear some special responsibilities that others may not). Others also want to rid our nation's debates about embryonic-stem-cell research of any so-called "political" interference with the research agendas of scientists. But this effort badly misrepresents the nature of both science and politics.

    Scientists also have their agendas; they do not work in a value-free vacuum as if they had no political commitments to pursue. Moreover, there can be little doubt that those who share Gazzaniga's view about research that destroys embryos have committed themselves to placing science in service of their agenda. Thus, for example, The New England Journal of Medicine editorially committed itself to seeking out and publishing articles that would support the cause of embryonic-stem-cell research (a gross example of partisanship compromising the scholarly commitment to pursuing truth wherever it may lead).

    This is a point that often gets lost in debates about the ethics of science (and medicine.) In general, when making arguments for controversial subjects - such as euthanasia or cloning - people wrap doctors and scientists in a mantle of truth. The same people who would be skeptical of a pharmaceutical company's motives in pushing a new drug are too willing to believe that scientists and doctors live in some special parallel universe where they are never tempted by self interest. In euthanasia, no one asks whether or not the doctor might be relieved to rid himself of a difficult, time consuming patient. In cloning, no one asks if scientists might not be anxious to retain the research dollars needed to pay their salaries and advance their careers.

    To assume that scientists and doctors will always work toward the greater good without being influence by their own agendas is more than a little naive. And to use that assumption as the basis of the argument that cloning is for the greater good and that all objections based on respect for human dignity and life are "nonsensical" as a result is just plain wrong.

    posted by Sydney on 2/21/2006 05:05:00 PM 2 comments


    Well said. Spot on.


    By Blogger Flea, at 5:22 AM  

    I will second that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:05 AM  

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