|Writer's Block: Big Debates
||[Mar. 15th, 2009|08:20 am]
Everything's dangerous, including eating, breathing, walking....not doing something (not eating, not breathing, not walking) has its own dangers. So research, even if dangerous, can be just as dangerous NOT to do. Stem-cell research is less dangerous to the public than many other kinds (atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, for instance) and the potential benefits are high.
Do you think stem cell research is good, bad, or dangerous? Should it be funded by the government?
Stem cell research is, like many other kinds of biological research, essential to understanding how living things "work." It has high potential for advancing therapeutics, and thus falls into the "not just good but important to do" category.
Basic research should be funded by the government as well as private entities, because private entities often choose to use research results for private profit, not the welfare of the whole. Research is scientific infrastructure, the way that roads and bridges and water treatment plants are physical infrastructure. We need to support that infrastructure. In a straitened research budget, stem cell research might not have priority over something else--but if there were funds enough, it certainly should be publicly funded.
How DARE you make sense, you terrorist-loving, traitorous, latte-swilling liberal baby-killer? You might as well just shovel those God-given innocent baby fetuses into the gaping maw of Moloch! Why, next thing we know, you might be claiming that a colored fella would make a good president! Osama bin Obama is sitting in his cave and smiling right now.
(This message brought to you by the Department of "I Wish it Were Only Sarcasm." Had this been an actual post, half the words would have been misspelled.)
I'm very excited about the potential of stem-cell research, for all kinds of reasons.
I think a lot of people are missing an important point- Yes, those cells are alive, but so is a mosquito- and a mosquito's far more complex than an embryo. By the time those cells differentiate enough to be identified as anything even remotely human, they aren't stem cells any more.
Should I wish to be even more provocative (and I guess I do, since I'm about to post this): if it's noble and heroic for young people to go off and be killed in war, when their parents and the country have invested all those years of care, education, expense, etc. in them, then why be so squeamish about the death of an embryo that might never reach viability anyway? Call it a hero, if you want, giving its little (not-at-all-independent) life for the good of all.
Stem cells are human by their DNA--they're not mosquitoes, or amoebae, or oak trees. But just as my kidney cells aren't a person (though a kidney is big enough to qualify as a fetus, not an embryo), stem cells are not tiny little people, nor are embryos. They are something of human genetic origin that might (if and only if in the right environment for long enough) end up as a fetus and then a viable infant. Plenty don't. I lost one in early pregnancy; I know all about investing that little bit of tissue with great hopes, with thinking of names and so on and then...it's gone. That happens, and it happens more than the successful development. (It's very Darwinian: survival of the fittest and death of the less fit starts even before implantation, and many times after.)
"they are something of human genetic origin that might (if and only if in the right environment for long enough) end up as a fetus and then a viable infant."
That's what I was thinking of- the DNA might be human, but it's nothing a layperson could identify as human, and certainly nothing viable.
(I know that "viable" is a slippery concept- my mom had a stillbirth at 5 months, and I was born at 6 months not long after. And I think it hurt my parents a lot, because I didn't know about it for years. But I'm pretty sure they're both as excited about stem cell research as I am.)
Very important caveat to the question which gets lost in the screaming. Stem cell research is a superset of embryonic stem cell research because not all stem cells are embryonic ones.
This is a critical difference that most people don't grasp. We all have stem cells in our bodies (we'd be dead if we didn't). Understanding why some cells are stem cells, how to tell which cells are which and so on are key to understanding numerous metabolic systems and diseases such as cancer. Stem cell research is an unalloyed good because we don't understand these things yet.
Harvesting stem cells from embryos (as opposed to living humans) is popular because 1) all cells are stem cells at this point in the development of the fetus 2) they can be convinced to replicate any other sort of cell (regular stem cells mostly will only replicate a single type e.g. liver cells or skin cells),
But ethically it is pretty iffy if you believe that life begins at conception. I personally think that embryos are not in fact human and that therefore creating an embryo in order to use it for stem cell research (or for that matter using one from IVF that would otherwise be discarded) is not the same as murder but I definitely understand the PoV that disagrees. If you do believe that life begins at conception then ipso facto embryonic stem cell research is tantamount to murder and thus paying your taxes to support it is not notably different to paying taxes to support the mass murder of humans.
[And yes there is an ethical ahh inconsistency when you support nuking the muslims but oppose embryonic stem cell research]
However there is also good reason to believe that actual therapeutic uses of stem cells will mostly require stem cells from the patient so embryonic stem cell research is to somewhat of a research only cul-de-sac. This means that in fact we may not need any more embryonic stem cell lines (i.e. different ex-fetuses) to be created because we can learn all that we need to learn from the ones we already have. I suspect that is wrong, but I certainly think that indiscriminate mass creation of embryonic stem cell lines begins to cross some ethical boundaries that do not need to be crossed for the purposes of research.
The people who feel so strongly that embryonic stem cell research is wrong should attack the problem at the source, the IVF clinics who make the excess embryos. But then they would be interfering with other couples' rights to have children, and matters would get even more heated.