Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another Major Stem Cell Advance

Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology announced yesterday that they've derived colonies of stem cells from human embryos without doing any damage to those original embryos.

If this pans out it'll be a very big deal-promising major medical advances without the ethical dilemmas inherent in embryonic stem cell research.


admiral burns said...

There is no "inherent ethical dilemmas" to embryonic stem cell research. Women get pregnant, wome have abortions, and woman have miscarriages. There are, for many reasons, embryos that do not continue to form into a human being. I seriously doubt that a pregnant woman walking past an abortion clinic will say to herself "Hey, if I go in here and get an abortion, I can donate the left-overs for embryonic stem cell research."
The only ethical issue I see is that groups, like the Catholic Church, are preventing research and cures to diseases like, say Parkinson's, the disease I watched my grandfather die of.

Mike Stajduhar said...

I beg to differ. There are a great many people (including me), not just the intuitional leadership of the Church of Rome who have serious moral reservations about embryonic stem cell research.

Like many people, I believe that life begins at conception. I believe this not for religious reasons (though my faith and as far as I’m aware every other religion shares this view) but for hard scientific ones. It is the literal truth that within hours of fertilization, an embryo possesses unique self-replicating DNA which will never occur again in the history of the universe. Is it entirely dependent on others for survival? Of course, but so is an infant or a 90 year old with Alzheimer’s. Indeed unless acted upon by another agent the embryo will someday become that 90 year old with Alzheimer’s. No one who’s ever used modern imaging technology to look inside a pregnant woman’s womb could easily discount what lies there as a simple undifferentiated mass of tissue. Recognizable features are noticeable startlingly early. It makes more sense (to me anyway) to think of this as the early stages of human life rather than some kind of pre-life as pro-abortion activists do. It’s the pro-choice folks who are waiting for some magical event to invest a fetus with a soul, not the pro-lifers.

If an embryo should be considered human for the purposes of our moral calculus, then can they be sacrificed for the possible medical benefit of others? I would have to say no. My personal philosophy is strongly influenced by the writings of Immanuel Kant who would say (if I understand him correctly which I suppose is not a given) that for an act to be moral, it needs to universally applicable. For example, stealing cannot be moral because if everyone stole all the time commerce would be destroyed and society would be impoverished. There are of course problems with this approach. If lying is always wrong (because if everybody did it all the time language would loose its meaning) does that mean you have to tell the truth when the Nazis come to your door and ask if you’re hiding Jews in the attic? Some commenters have tried to address this flaw in Kant’s approach buy arguing that some duties outweigh others (i.e. preserving life trumps lying) but Kant was I think cleverer than many realize. Kant argued strongly that it was immoral to cause harm to another as a means to an end. It would then by implication be immoral to expose the proverbial Jews in the attic-either to preserve the sanctity of truth or escape punishment and certainly not for a reward.

I think the implications of this line of reasoning with regard to the morality of embryonic stem cell research are rather obvious.

This moral view can be thought of as anti-utilitarianism. For what it’s worth though, I remain unpersuaded that utilitarians should support this sort of thing either. If the guiding principal of utilitarianism is “the greatest good for the greatest number” then one needs to consider closely how we are allocating both “the good” and “the greatest number”. Abortion is fraught with problems from a utilitarian perspective. Over a million a year are preformed in the United States each year mostly for reasons of convenience. All those future taxpayers, soldiers, doctors, pharmacists, and history teachers, are sacrificed each year on the altar of Choice.

Stem cell research is however a tougher case. Presumably at the end of the day we will all benefit from the scientific advances it produces. More importantly we are assured that the moral cost of these advances is low since it involves using embryos that would never be born in any case. I’m not sure that either of these claims is obviously true. While stem cell technologies may well change medicine forever and cure countless diseases, so far they’re pretty much a bust. It’s true that they hold tremendous promise but sometimes promises go unfulfilled. I’m old enough to remember how a drug named Interferon was going to cure cancer by 1980.

Then there is the view that the embryos would never be used and thus the only way for their lives to have value in medical experimentation. This strikes me as having at least two major flaws. The first is that the current existence of the embryo is of no intrinsic value in and of itself and that it is essentially equivalent to death. I dispute that. Embryos may not be running around playing tennis or launching unfriendly corporate takeovers but they do have an existence all their own. If we found them on Mars we would surely call it life and no doubt Greenpeace would try to protect them.

Secondly, the argument that they will never be used is predictive in nature. I myself find it difficult to imagine what the world of tomorrow will look like. Who could have imagined just a few years ago, the great advances in reproductive technologies that have created this very dilemma. Even today there is demand for other peoples embryo’s from infertile couples. Perhaps tomorrow will bring more of this as people tend to have children later and later in life. Perhaps those embryos have a future after all.

Admiral Burns said...

As is often the case between you and I, it seems that our opinions are not that far apart, yet we manage to argue. (This in itself could be a twisted argument for same-sex marriage). I agree that ethical dilemmas could develope, depending on how the embryos are harvested. My argument is that there are embryos that would otherwise be distroyed that should be used for this research. As long as these are the embryos being used, the ethical dilemma is at most dibatable.
My problem lies with the word "inherent." I believe embryos can be found and used without ethical dilemmas. Is there then an ethical dilemma in blocking the use of these for the sake of Dogma?