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Monday, December 06, 2004
William Saletan over at Slate writes on what may be an acceptable solution on the subject of stem-cell research. He provides two solutions to the stem-cell debate. The second, I would be opposed to under any circumstances:
The distinction Hurlbut wants to draw and exploit is between a whole embryo and its parts. He quotes Thomas Aquinas to the effect that an animal's life resides in its wholeness. "A living being is more than the sum of its parts," he argues. But while humanity may lie in the whole, utility may lie in the parts. As Hurlbut puts it in his presentation paper, "Incompletely constituted or severed from the whole, subsystems with partial trajectories of development may temporarily proceed forward with a certain biological momentum." In other words, the parts of an embryo—or the parts that normally would become an embryo—might produce stem cells, even if, to avoid the moral problem, we kept these parts incomplete or severed.Hurlbut in this case is basically trying to pull an ethical or theological trick. I can't imagine this idea in any way resolving the debate. And anyways... like ick!
How could we create functioning parts of an embryo without the whole? By turning off one of the genes that guide embryo formation. Hurlbut's first choice is the human equivalent of cdx2, the gene in mice that directs the formation of the placenta. Without cdx2, the embryonic mouse cells divide but fail to take the shape of a mouse. The plan would be to follow the recipe for cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off cdx2. Then, once the cell begins to divide, reactivate the gene, too late to organize the embryo but early enough to make stem cells.
The first proposal seems like it would be much more acceptable to all sides of the debate:
The first, by Drs. Donald Landry and Howard Zucker of Columbia University, proposes that we take stem cells from embryos at the same point at which we take organs from children and adults: right after they die. All we have to do is agree on the point at which an embryo is dead. Landry suggests that this point is "the irreversible arrest of cell division," which conveniently applies to huge numbers of embryos frozen in IVF clinics. With further study, he argues, we can clarify the signs of irreversible arrest, which will tell us when it's kosher to start yanking stem cells. He cites an experiment in which stem cells from arrested frog embryos were injected into normal frog embryos. Twenty-five percent of the cells began to divide again and were absorbed into the new embryos.Without going to deep into the proposal, on the face of it, it seems quite reasonable. It is basically an extension of our current 'organ donor' laws which we have come to accept. Any thoughts on this? I'll give it a bit more thought over the next few days and see what I come up with.
I should mention that over the long term I really have fears about where our knowledge of genetics could lead us. Are we ready to create the 'brave new man'? What won't we screen for or modify in order to 'improve' the lives of our children? Teenagers already get plastic surgery with the consent of their parents and lets be realistic here: most people will go to some scarey extremes in order to help their children. How far will tomorrow's parents go?
Regardless of the long term considerations, have Landry and Zucker provided a viable solution to the stem-cell debate as it is currently argued?
crossposted to The Shotgun
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