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Exciting Stem Cell News:

Two publications (Science and Cell) published papers today showing that scientists have succeeded in reprogramming human adult cells to behave much like human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Following on findings published several months using mouse rather than human cells, the researchers responsible for today's results were able to spur the reprogramming by inserting four genes into the adult cells.

The big question is whether this new technique will quell the stem cell research controversy, which arises largely from the fact that the stem cells scientists believe have the greatest medical potential are today derived from 5-day old embryos. The answer is "maybe." Scientists interviewed in today's New York Times article were ebullient about the results, but it is worth remembering that there have been two major scientific discoveries in the last 18 months that promised to end the debate and then quickly faded from public view. In the summer of 2006, scientist Robert Lanza showed that it was possible to produce hESC lines without destroying embryos by carefully removing single cells from many 8-cell embryos. Although long term effects are unknown, we know that removing a single cell from an embryo at that stage does not prevent it from developing. This technique is routinely used to obtain genetic material for preimplantation genetic testing, and the embryos (less one cell) are successfully used for implantation by in vitro fertility clinics. In January of this year, scientists from Harvard and Wake Forest Universities reported that they had discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid that possessed many traits of hESCs.

I am optimistic about today's discovery, but three questions remained to be answered, two scientific and one philosophical.

The scientific questions: First, will further research show that these reprogrammed cells actually have all the features of hESCs that make the latter so promising? This means they not only must be able to create all the body's cell types, but they must be able to proliferate as rapidly and maintain their unspecialized characteristics in culture as well as hESCs do. Second, will the reprogrammed cells create cancers or other gentic abnormalities? The work done using mouse cells earlier this year suggests the answer is probably yes at the moment, although improvements in the technique might solve this problem. If this problem cannot be overcome, reprogrammed cells might be just as useful as hESCs for some research purposes but not suitable as the basis for stem cell preparations that could be used as treatments for patients.

The philosophical question: Will opponents of embryo research embrace the concept of reprogramming cells to their embryonic state? The technology suggests it might one day be possible to use a cell reprogrammed in this way to create an entire person, in the same way that an implanted embryo can develop into a person. Given this possibility, will people who believe embryos have the same moral value as persons and thus should not be used for experimentation believe that reprogrammed cells also have the same moral value as persons and thus also should not be used for experimentation? There is a substantial difference between an embryo and and embryonic stem cell, but not everyone who favors the protection of embryos thinks this difference is dispositive of the question. When Robert Lanza demonstrated the possibility of using single cells from a 8-cell embryos to create cell lines, some opponents of embryo research (including Senator Sam Brownback) protested on the ground that the single cell in question deserved protection. More discussion of the Lanza technique and the response to it can be found in Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology).

WHOI Jacket:
Another question is whither or not some people are going to give up their bully clubs for beating back the "REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE!"
11.20.2007 3:07pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
Part of the problem is that science is generally slow, at least by the standards of impatient modern culture. No technique (like any of the above) will be widely adopted until it is shown to work in numerous, repeated studies. On the other hand, initial results are (generally) published as soon as practical. So even if one of the techniques does work perfectly, it won't be developed enough to solve the problem for a while.

Also, it's worth noting that at least one of the techniques, removal of a cell from an embryo, already allows the creation of a viable adult. Embryonic cloning, also called artificial twinning, is done that way.
11.20.2007 3:54pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Greg makes an interesting point.

What will happen when adult cells (say skin cells) can be altered to grow into fully viable embryonic cells. As in - cells that we can use to grow a new person. (The idea is not so absurd; every cell in your body contains the DNA needed to grow a whole new you.)

At what point would the soul enter the budding embryo? It would have to happen sometime between shaving off the skin cell and birth. Would it be when the last chemical was added to finish the "reboot"? (If so, can we call that chemical "soul juice" for fun?)
11.20.2007 4:47pm
Houston Lawyer:
"To the last, I will grapple with thee. From hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee."

At what state will the genetically improved believe that they have more rights than ordinary humans?
11.20.2007 6:08pm
Anderson (mail):
Will Justice Kennedy uphold a ban on this research, on the basis that the cells might one day come to regret their metamorphosis?
11.20.2007 6:09pm
Anderson (mail):
At what state will the genetically improved believe that they have more rights than ordinary humans?

The financially improved already have absorbed that proposition, so I'm sure that human nature will prevail even with the genetically improved.
11.20.2007 6:11pm
Bad (mail) (www):
The punchline is that research like this exposes in full blush how absurd the "embryos are people" arguments are. ANY cell, when properly manipulated, can start down the path of growing into a person.

That is because DNA and the right cellular machinery are processes and recipes, not essentialist homunculi. The building of a being that functions in such a way that we think it has moral interests and rights is not a magic moment, it is a long process with no definitive beginning and no single completion point. Sexual reproduction is simply a SUBSET of asexual reproduction: life buds off of other life.

Of course, the fact that there is a moral gradient does not mean that there aren't also very clear areas of pure black and white, and embryos, with absolutely none of the capacities relevant to moral rights, are pretty clearly in the white area.

"At what point would the soul enter the budding embryo? "

The question is utterly meaningless. There is no operational definition of soul, no way to tell when one is present or not, because it is not a term that actually means anything or implies anything or explains anything. There is no mystery philosophical or even theological which a "soul" explains or clears up: it's obfuscation and avoidance boiled down into a single nonsense word.
11.20.2007 7:26pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
If one of the motivations behind ESC work is to denature abortion--after all, it's the same thing we do to fix people up--this is a problem.
11.20.2007 7:47pm
ReaderY:
On the first question, even without attempting to address the ethical issues involved a new technique that bypasses the practical human problems -- ethical concerns, the need to get volunteers to provide a supply, and more -- does not have to be nearly as efficient from a theoretical or in vitro point of view to be practically much more effective in vivo.

On the second question, there is an important distinction between something that would ordinarily be a person of a sort everyone would recognize if left to its natural course in its natural environment and something that requires substantial manipulation to be. Otherwise there would be ethical problems with routine blood draws and biopsies on the grounds that some future technique might be able to convert the tissues involved into complete human beings. SO below a threshold, there is likely not a problem with manipulated adult cells. The fact that people may disagree on where the theshold should be does not make it an invalid concept. However, it's also unlikely that people will stay below such a threshold, and if we move from something that looks like merely growing organs to something that looks like growing complete people with token defficiencies to make them legally non-human by some increasingly hypertechnical definition, there would be (and there may well be) very serious problems.
11.20.2007 8:08pm
ReaderY:
That said, if the technique does work and is safe, I don't think the possibility of future problems that would arise from taking it to far should prevent legitimate uses.
11.20.2007 8:11pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
ReaderY.

You speak--of growing organisms not quite human by some hypertechnical definition--as if somebody has told you that's the plan.

True?

Or is it merely the common-sense tenth step down this road and everybody could figure it out after a moment's thought?
11.20.2007 8:56pm
Henri LeCompte (mail):
For some reason, people who disagree about this topic have great difficulty discussing it in a reasonable and respectful manner. It seems to immediately elicit the most inflexible and combative stances! Just look at the thread above, if you doubt this.

I am a scientist with an advanced degree in biology. Nevertheless, I am unashamed to admit that I am quite "stuck" on the horns of this stem cell dilemma. It is all too easy for either side of this issue to lampoon/caricature the other, but... if you take the time to listen to all the arguments... it really is a philosophical quandary. Hmmm, maybe that's why people refuse to listen to each other?

Human embryos are most certainly "human" life-- they are a specific human being (and no other), at a specific (and very transient) stage in his/her biological development. People who insist that they "know" otherwise are simply kidding themselves. The fact of the matter is that at specific, and perfectly natural, stages in our development, we are all obligate parasites who are dependent on a "host" (aka Mom). Why is that such an "absurd" or controversial observation?

I think people get so up in arms about this because they have knee-jerk reactions that have been "conditioned" by the topic of abortion. Stem cell research is a very different matter-- with completely different moral issues-- than abortion. Put simply, women have the right to decide whether or not they would like their bodies to be used as a host for a human parasite. There is no similar issue at play in embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell research that involves the destruction of a human embryo most certainly does result in the destruction of a specific, very real, individual human being's life. I'm sorry if some of you refuse to accept that, but it is biological reality, not opinion. Now... it is also true that at this very early stage of human development, there is no reason to believe that the embryo "suffers," or has any sort of consciousness at all. It is also true that, in the normal course of events, many embryos at the stem-cell stage never make it to "babyhood." That's because there are many, many conditions and circumstances that must exist simultaneously (i.e., a maternal womb) in order for this embryonic human to continue his/her development.

Nobody is obligated to provide all the necessary circumstances for embryonic development, and so, any given "stem-cell embryo" may very well die, of nothing more than simple neglect. It is perfectly legal to do this. But that has literally nothing to do with the question of its essential humanity. Right now, I require all sorts of ongoing conditions and circumstances to remain alive. Nobody is legally or morally obligated to provide me with the food, water, shelter, or iPods that I require for continued existence. So what?? Or, more importantly, what does that have to do with the question of whether or not I am a human being?
11.20.2007 9:14pm
Bad (mail) (www):
Henri, you are simply wrong. Whether or not it is an individual "human beings" life is not a biological reality at all: it's a matter of some very subjective definitions. Every cell in my body contains a recipe for making a human being: all that has to happen is that the recipe gets set in motion in the right environment with the right raw materials, and the process begins anew. Life is not coming from unlife: it's budding off of more life, and sexual reproduction is just a variation on iths.

As a biologist, I would hope you would know, for instance, that embryos can ultimately turn into two or more "individuals" depending on how they develop, making the idea that they are "an individual human life" in the sense you said absurd. Or they can turn into none (which is, as you noted, the ACTUAL natural course of things for embryos). In fact, embryos can remain alive indefinitely without ever developing into fetuses with more differentiated tissues, nervous systems an so forth. They need not be "killed" at all to just not develop further.

Embryos just aren't "people": they aren't individuals in that sense. They are genetically human, and they are the first stages of constructing what can become a person, but they are simply not there yet. The framework is laid, constructed in cell divisions and orientations according to a genetic program, but the wiring hasn't been done, none of the actual features have been built, and the lights very definitely are not on.

Being a person is about having certain recognizable capacities that we over the long course of human history, have come to recognize, grant rights to, and respect. Embryos have none of these capacities, and never had any. It has no concerns, cares, hopes, or expectations and NEVER has had these things. Shrimp have more than them.
11.20.2007 9:45pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Bad.

If we grant rights to humans, or decide a being is human if we grant certain rights, then that's a social construct.
Which society can change.
You need to have something more solid. As Justice O'Conner remarked that Roe would be overturned by progress in neo-natal technology, your point could be overturned by a social decison to grant rights to a being not currently endowed with them by us.

The unquiet over the criminality of killing an unborn whatchamacallit when assaulting a pregnant woman ought to be a lesson. We as a society are having difficulties with the decision. Pro-choicers don't necessarily want to applaud the crime, but the extension of the thought is rough for them. But the social view of the unborn is subject to change.

Then what?
11.20.2007 10:18pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Henri:

I did not intend to ridicule (well, not too much anyway). This is an important ethical question - the most important one of our time. "What makes a human, human?"

An embryo grows in the womb of an excited mother-to-be, and we call it life.

An embryo grows in a petri dish, and will never be implanted. We argue over whether it is "human".

One day we will be able to take a single skin cell, add chemicals to it, and create a new embryo that could be implanted in an excited mother-to-be. At what point did it turn from dead skin to "life"?

When I have sex with my wife, sperm occasionally meets egg. Since she is on birth control, the embryo passes from her body without implanting. Did a "human being" just die?

One day we will be able to grow babies completely outside of wombs. When it that process will a fetus become a "baby"? When it first opens its eyes? When it first feels pain?

---
I don't know the answer to these questions, but I am fairly certain that trying to decide if cells have a "soul" isn't going to get us anywhere.

My personal answer (if I had to take a shot at it) is this:

Define a baby as an infant that can live solely in the care of a "mother", who will do all that a typical mother does to care for it. A fetus or embryo is "alive and human" when it
1) reaches the state of a "baby", OR
2) when its owners intend for it to reach that state.

Even I see all sorts of holes in that. ::sigh:: What a tough question . . . .
11.20.2007 10:43pm
AK (mail):
ANY cell, when properly manipulated, can start down the path of growing into a person.

This issue is best resolved by not complicating it unnecessarily.

We could also say that "any collection of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and trace metals, when propery manipulated, can start down the path of growing into a person." We could say that "any collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons... etc." That's true, but it obscures the issue. It's not at all difficult to tell when a treated somatic cell presently contains all of the properties of a embryo. If you can implant it in a uterus and it can begin growing into a human, it's a human embryo. This really isn't very hard.

Oh, and I encourage your wife to join the 1970s and get on birth control that prevents ovulation, not just implantation!
11.20.2007 11:34pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Some birth control pills reduce endometrial linings as well as prevent ovulation, thereby providing "double" protection.
11.20.2007 11:49pm
AK (mail):
I appreciate the difficulty in drawing what will always be a fairly arbitrary line between personhood and nonpersonhood. In the context of abortion debates, we've all heard any number of decisions about where to place the line. Should it be placed at consciousness? At the point at which pain can be felt? (And are these two different things? I know that an infant will display a reaction to "painful" stimuli, but I don't know of a reason to believe that an infant is "conscious" in the sense that we understand it.) And if we decide that the ability to feel pain grants an organism rights, shouldn't all organisms that feel pain enjoy those rights?

Even if you can come up with a place for the line that's theoretically acceptable, there's the question of practice. Let's say that consciousness is our threshhold. Can we be certain that a four-month-old fetus does NOT have some form of consciousness? And if we cannot be certain, should we risk allowing an abortion at that stage of development?

I liken this debate to the criminal law principles that you can't just discharge weapons willy-nilly. We'd consider it murder if you knew that there was a 1% chance that a gun was loaded, and you picked it up, pointed it at me, and pulled the trigger. What if there was a 1% chance (based on available scientific knowledge) that the fetus was conscious?

My solution is to keep it simple: human rights are for human beings, and an embryo is a human being.
11.20.2007 11:50pm
AK (mail):
Actually triple, because most also thicken cervical mucous.

But the primary method of action for modern oral contraceptives is to prevent ovulation. If your wife is taking the pill as directed and on schedule every day there is very little chance that she's ovulating.
11.20.2007 11:52pm
Chris Bell (mail):
True. Point conceded. But still, not my main point here.
11.21.2007 12:01am
AK (mail):
Yes, sorry for derailing this a bit. I'm interested in what you have to say about the on-topic points I made.
11.21.2007 12:04am
Brian K (mail):
My solution is to keep it simple: human rights are for human beings, and an embryo is a human being.

Wouldn't it be just as simple to say "My solution is to keep it simple: human rights are for human beings, and an embryo is not a human being."
11.21.2007 12:42am
Brian K (mail):
in fact, now that i think about it further...it might even be easier, since you don't have to deal with the rape/incest/health of mother exception to abortion restrictions.
11.21.2007 12:49am
AK (mail):
Your alternative requires us to find a point somewhere between "embryo" and "30 year old" where human rights begin to attach. Sticky business, that. I'm not saying it's impossible to find that point and defend it persuasively, but no, it's not "just as simple" as my statement.

And because I don't believe that a human being conceived through rape or incest is less deserving of human rights than one conceived through consentual sex between non-relatives, those scenarios do not present a problem for me. "Health of the mother" is fairly easily governed by the principle of double effect.
11.21.2007 1:08am
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Bad:
I can't help but think that we are talking past one another-- but, somehow just not connecting. An embryo is a human life simply because it is a regular, plain 'ol Joe Blow human, at a specific point in his perfectly normal life. You, me, the Pope, every single human being that has ever existed, has at some point passed through that exact same period in his/her development.

Now, there are "special" qualities that we all have at that point-- like the ability to be split in two and thus be cloned-- but that has nothing to do with the question of whether or not we are "human." It is exactly the same as the fact that at around the ages of 1-4 years old, we have the ability to learn any language just by hearing it spoken. Typically, you cannot do that when you are 30 years old. Just like, at 30 years old, you cannot have half of your cell mass split off of you and have it grow into a duplicate of you. But... so what? The same person at different stages of their development have different capabilities. All of those phases are completely normal. One of them is not "more human" than the others.

You seem to be positing a "functional" test that defines humanness. The problem with that is that you then must deny human status to people who fail your arbitrary tests. Like mentally retarded people, or demented people. I can guarantee you that there are fully developed, externally human as human gets, adults that cannot function intellectually at the level of a shrimp. I know this because I've seen this. In fact, treat people like this every day. Are they not human? Did then become "objects" after their motorcycle accident? Why can't we just kill them? Or sell them? Or perform experiments on them? Sell their organs?

When you say that an embryo cannot be "human" because "it has no concerns, cares, hopes, or expectations and NEVER has had these things," you are creating a completely arbitrary definition of what it means to be human. One that many mentally retarded adults do not meet. One that sleeping people do certainly not meet during certain segments of the sleep cycle. One that comatose people do not meet. One that-- quite possibly-- infants do not meet. Nevertheless, infants grow over time, and one day do meet your criteria. Sleeping people wake up. Embryos continue to develop. One day, they ALL meet your criteria for "humanhood." Are they suddenly rendered fundamentally different at that instant? Or... are they the same individual, the same organism, but at a different phase in its completely normal developmental cycle?

Do you really want to say that people who don't share with you some arbitrary set of mental experiences are "not good enough" to be human? They are nothing more than objects? Just so you know, there was a world leader 50 years ago who thought exactly as you do. He thought all sorts of people were not "really" human, or not fit to live, based on their imperfections. He had a phrase-- "Life that is unfit for life." He thought that living was a privilege that you had to "earn" by meeting his personal standards. He ended up killing a lot of people-- in the end, probably over 50 million people. His example is why a lot of people like me feel uncomfortable getting in the "so-and-so's aren't people" business. It's just hubris. It is playing God. It is potentially killing people who are too weak, or sick, or young, or defenseless to stop you.

You probably think I'm a sanctimonious jerk, but in reality I am being as honest with you as I possibly can.
11.21.2007 2:27am
deenk:
I find it odd that the sticking point for this issue is in the destruction of embryos for SCR. Embryos could be created for such a purpose, but my understanding is that they would almost all be created from leftover embryos in vitro fertilization labs. Yet, I have never heard of someone chastising a friend for going to a fertility clinic for IV, or a religious person begging the government to ban a practice that creates a dozen or more doomed embryos in order to implant one or two. Surely it is the creation of excess embryos to begin with and not the manner of their destruction that is the ethical fulcrum.
11.21.2007 2:29am
Brian K (mail):
Your alternative requires us to find a point somewhere between "embryo" and "30 year old" where human rights begin to attach
Why not the traditional "birth"? All the points before that are rather arbitrary.

And because I don't believe that a human being conceived through rape or incest is less deserving of human rights than one conceived through consentual sex between non-relatives, those scenarios do not present a problem for me.
But it's not "simple"...I highly doubt the future mother to be will think it is simple that they are carrying the baby of a rapist or close family member.

"Health of the mother" is fairly easily governed by the principle of double effect.
I disagree here. If you define an embryo as human life from day one, then the bad will always outweigh the good when taking action to protect the mother's health. The probability of the death to the embryonic will be 1 while the probability of death to the mother will (almost) always be less than one but still significant. (Although there are other refutations if you are using a different formulation of the principle of double effect. e.g. here)

It's also not "simple" or "easy" once you get into actions that can be considered assault and/or battery. what if the mother drinks alcohol, smokes, drinks caffeine, uses drugs, has a poor diet, gets a viral/bacterial infection, fails to get adequate prenatal care, uses the wrong doctor, trips, or any number of other actions that can harm the embryo/fetus? would there by a "religious" exception for those religious groups that don't believe in certain forms of healthcare? how do you deal with those situations if an embryo has full human rights?
11.21.2007 2:39am
Brian K (mail):
Henri,

I am a scientist with an advanced degree in biology.

and

I know this because I've seen this. In fact, treat people like this every day.

If you are a biologist, how do you treat people? if you are a physician, then why not just say that (and since when was an MD considered an "advanced degree in biology")?
11.21.2007 2:44am
AK (mail):
Why not the traditional "birth"?

That makes a clear line: you're either born or not born, and that's easy to determine. And you're (mostly) right: points before that are (mostly) arbitrary. There's an "ick" factor at work here. I think that many people would theoretically be comfortable with the "birth" line, for the "my body, my choice" reasons. And yet people can intuit that it's just as ghastly to crush a baby's skull two seconds before it's born as it is to crush a baby's skull two seconds after it's born. So what they do is basically try to work back to a point where the fetus doesn't look like a baby anymore, or doesn't have certain (arbitrary!) characteristics that an infant has.

Anyway, I can guarantee that you're not going to be satisfied with my best answer, because it assumes things that you're not prepared to assume. I'll try a different angle. By any measure commonly used by abortion apologists to define humanness (consciousness, the ability to feel pain, the ability to use reason, etc.), none of these change at the moment of birth. The only thing that changes is that the infant now draws its oxygen from the air and its food by mouth. There are many definitions for what makes us human, and what makes us distinct from animals and what gives us unique rights. The ability to breathe and eat on our own is not on that list. There's just not much special about birth. I'm sorry, but I can't give you a better answer at this point.

As a minor point, I also dispute that birth is the "traditional" point at which human rights begin to attach. Prohibitions on abortion are not of recent vintage.

If you define an embryo as human life from day one, then the bad will always outweigh the good when taking action to protect the mother's health.

Depends on the meaning of "health." Yes, generally if it's not a very serious illness, the embryo's rights will win out. Incidentally, I've always enjoyed the terminology: the carrier of the products of conception, or postconception tissue mass, or a fetus, or whatever abortion apologists call it, is a "mother." How quaint!

It's also not "simple" or "easy" once you get into actions that can be considered assault and/or battery. what if the mother drinks alcohol, smokes, drinks caffeine, uses drugs, has a poor diet, gets a viral/bacterial infection, fails to get adequate prenatal care, uses the wrong doctor, trips, or any number of other actions that can harm the embryo/fetus?

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Are you asking for a comprehensive legislative plan for protection of unborn children? I confess that I don't have one. But my failure to formulate a plan for dealing with chain-smoking pregnant women does not render abortion moral.

What you're doing here is called "making the case for fog." It's a common technique, and everyone does it once in a while. How it works is that you take a clear moral position, like "torture is wrong," and then you poke around at the edges with tough cases. In an of itself there's nothing wrong with that. But the point is to convince yourself and others that because there are some tough cases, there are no easy cases.

I'm also curious how anything that you described could be considered "assault."
11.21.2007 3:46am
Brian K (mail):
There's just not much special about birth.
well for one, it is the point that the fetus is no longer an obligate parasite, to use henri's terms. or how about breathing? a fetus doesn't do breathe before birth and it's still alive but if the fetus doesn't breathe afterwards then it is unequivocally dead.

Prohibitions on abortion are not of recent vintage.
true. but you also can't argue that all prohibitions on abortion result from the belief that an embryo is a person. some resulted out of a desire to protect the mother (sticking a coat hanger inside you is most definitely not safe) and other resulted from protectionism on the part of physicians (why pay an MD $100 when you can pay a guy in an alley $10). I also wouldn't be surprised that some resulted form a desire to punish the woman for having sex.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here.
my point has to do with the fact that you claimed it was "simple" solution to declare embryo's human beings with full human rights. what i was trying to get at is that it is anything but a simple solution.

But my failure to formulate a plan for dealing with chain-smoking pregnant women does not render abortion moral.
I'm not arguing about the morality of abortion. I am simply trying to provide counterarguments to your argument. If you want to hear my take on the morality of abortion i'd be happy to give it.

I'm also curious how anything that you described could be considered "assault."
I had meant them as stand alone sentences...i should have been more clear. but i don't think it is much of a stretch to view excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy as "assault" on the fetus. fetal alcohol syndrome is a well known and characterized disorder.
11.21.2007 4:41am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
WRT rape:

Mike Adams has made an interesting point. We have, in this society, evolved--I think he puts it in quotes--beyond the death penalty for the rapist. But not beyond the death penalty for his kid. Who, to make it clear, was not the rapist.

Make sense to you?
11.21.2007 8:03am
Bad (mail) (www):
"An embryo is a human life simply because it is a regular, plain 'ol Joe Blow human, at a specific point in his perfectly normal life."

This a conceptual way of looking at it, not an objective one. It's conceptual because there are many different ways of defining and understanding what we mean by "human" life and of course what is "normal" is itself also a subjective judgment. A skin cell culture from my arm is just as genetically human as an embryo, and if someone someday decides to turn on its reproductive machinery, then being a skin cell would then ALSO be a stage in being a "regular plain 'ol Joe Blow human." That means that every single cell in my body right now is a person. Is that really what you meant? Because that's where your logic leads (not that it's wrong: it's just a particular characterization of things, but more fully explained in ways you didn't quite admit to)

And twins are not clones in the sense of a power one twin had: twins need not have an "original individual" at all. The fact of the matter is that embryonic tissue has the potential to form into something like a person, but until it does it is, functionally, far far more like a tiny multicellular eukaryote than a homo sapien.
11.21.2007 8:05am
Chris Bell (mail):
Bad.

That's exactly right. The difference between an embryo and a little piece of your arm is not that much. To call one "a human being" and the other "dead skin" is quite a leap.

To push the point. Picture an 8-cell chimpanzee embryo. The contents of the cell are incredibly similar to an 8-cell human embryo. There are just a few atoms in different places. Do a few molecules really make that much difference at this stage? (Is the soul located in those molecules?)

AK: "I can guarantee that you're not going to be satisfied with my best answer, because it assumes things that you're not prepared to assume."

If you're talking about religious reasons, I appreciate that you understand that religious reasoning is utterly unconvincing to those who don't share it. Far too few religious people are willing to 'secularize' their arguments in order to try and convince the rest of us.
11.21.2007 10:16am
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Brian K:
Small point, but... many doctors got advanced degrees in biology, biochem, you name it, before they went to med school.
11.21.2007 10:58am
Just a thought:

Yet, I have never heard of someone chastising a friend for going to a fertility clinic for IV, or a religious person begging the government to ban a practice that creates a dozen or more doomed embryos in order to implant one or two. Surely it is the creation of excess embryos to begin with and not the manner of their destruction that is the ethical fulcrum.


deenk,
The Catholic Church has been pretty clear in its opposition to IVF, in part because of the creation of embryos that will be later destroyed.

Check out the Vatican's official statement on these issues here.
11.21.2007 11:23am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
There are also fertility clinics that don't do the multi-embryo IVF method, albeit a fairly small number. It's not that the single-embryo at a time method is less effective in most mothers-to-be, it's just that there's a lot of extra time involved in creating a viable one.

Will opponents of embryo research embrace the concept of reprogramming cells to their embryonic state? The technology suggests it might one day be possible to use a cell reprogrammed in this way to create an entire person, in the same way that an implanted embryo can develop into a person.

I think that's a fairly poorly intended question. The philosophical viewpoint of many if not most of those against ESC research isn't that the embryos [i]could[/i] become people, but that they are people at the time (or, for agnostics like myself, that they might be considered people at the time).
From a purely technical viewpoint, anything can become a human. Exposed to semen, an egg could become a person eventually. With the right chemicals and tools, there's nothing but our current lack of knowledge stopping any skin cell from turning into a pluripotent cell and thus eventually a person. A quantum miracle could spontaneously transform a pile of sand into someone, although the odds are astronomically against. Even Mr. Brownback's complaints focused on our lack of knowledge of human reproduction; there's very little in the way of evidence that such an eight of an embryo was not already a twin.

I'd honestly be more worried about the other side of things. Despite the poor rate of development of successful treatment hESC has shown so far, for whatever reason, I'd expect most stem cell research proponents to keep advocating classical embryo-based methods. It's a political gold mine, and as long as the idiot left can keep harping about Bush's War On SCIENCE! they'll go out of their way to try and find any way the morally objectionable research could possibly be useful.
11.21.2007 12:05pm
Ramza:

From a purely technical viewpoint, anything can become a human. Exposed to semen, an egg could become a person eventually. With the right chemicals and tools, there's nothing but our current lack of knowledge stopping any skin cell from turning into a pluripotent cell and thus eventually a person. A quantum miracle could spontaneously transform a pile of sand into someone, although the odds are astronomically against. Even Mr. Brownback's complaints focused on our lack of knowledge of human reproduction; there's very little in the way of evidence that such an eight of an embryo was not already a twin.


(responding to the bold part)

Pluripotent cells can't become humans. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. The 1 in 8 method Lanza method describe above produces pluripotent stem cells, it can't produce a human being. In theory 1 in 4 can produce a human being but it has only occurred once in a lab with a mouse and couldn't be successfully replicated. The 1 in 8 method does not produce any harm to the remaining 7 cells which can become a human being. Pluripotent cells can produce all three germ layers and thus any cell.

Totipotent cells can become humans. This is because Totipotent cells can produce all three germ layers and extraembryonic tissues such as the placenta. Without the placenta to supply nutrients from the mother to the embryo the fetus will quickly die and naturally abort. The fetus will not become a human being.
11.21.2007 12:58pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Current science strongly suggests that pluriopotent cells can become totipotent. There are some species of lizards which do this on their own in order to reproduce. We don't know what, exactly, causes this, but again, it's a matter of knowledge rather than of actual capability.
11.21.2007 1:28pm
Henri Le Compte (mail):
Bad and Chris Bell:
You guys seem to be getting all tangled up in these speculative details, and missing the big picture.

Is a car the same thing as a computer? After all, they're both made of metals, plastic, etc. Theoretically, you could break a car down to its constituent components and mix those atoms and molecules around, and eventually, viola! You could make a computer out of that stuff. And not just one! You could probably make several computers out of one regular car. Therefore, a car is just the same thing as a computer, right?

Likewise, with enough manipulation, you could theoretically, make an embryo out of a skin cell. Of course, it's never been done, and it may never actually be done because of technical barriers that we haven't even glimpsed yet, but, hey-- who can prove you wrong? Therefore, there is no significant difference between a skin cell and an embryo. Just like there is no essential difference between a car and a computer. That's the argument that convinced you of your current opinions??

But... what I don't understand is how the theoretical notion that you could muck around with a skin cell (and thereby turn it into something quite different than a skin cell) rebuts the notion that an embryo is a human being (just at an early stage of development). In fact, what does any of that have to do with the moral issues aroused by embryonic research, or the nature of what it means to be human? When you take a skin cell, and turn it into, say, a cancer cell, then and only then, is it a cancer cell. Not before. And that is because you have fundamentally altered its nature. If/when you turn a skin cell into an embryo, once again you have turned it into something fundamentally different. You have turned it into a cell that has the very real potential to grow into an adult human being. Which is something no skin cell has ever, or could ever, do. When you turn a skin cell into an embryo, it no longer is a skin cell. It is as different from skin cells as a car is from a computer. But... so what?

One last thing (and then I'll finally leave you alone!)... in your opinion, when does an embryo( or anything else for that matter) become "human"? And how would you know?
11.21.2007 1:43pm
Ramza:

Current science strongly suggests that pluriopotent cells can become totipotent. There are some species of lizards which do this on their own in order to reproduce. We don't know what, exactly, causes this, but again, it's a matter of knowledge rather than of actual capability.

Yes and that requires making the pluripotent cell a totipotent cell. That is another step we have to discover as well as very big future brightline rule.

Skipping steps in your explanations shouldn't be done when speaking with educated experts, as well with people who don't know the science and how something works. It is what has allowed advocates of adult stem cells to pretend to the general public that adult stem cells are identical to embryonic stem cells when this obviously isn't the case scientifically (one day we may be able to make one act as the other but so far that hasn't happen, though this research brings it close.)
11.21.2007 2:32pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Henri:

Likewise, with enough manipulation, you could theoretically, make an embryo out of a skin cell. Of course, it's never been done, and it may never actually be done because of technical barriers that we haven't even glimpsed yet, but, hey-- who can prove you wrong?

It has already been done with mice. A piece of mice "skin" has been induced to grow into a whole living mouse.

My whole point is that there is extremely little difference between a clump of skin cells and an embryo. They each contain full copies of DNA - just with different genes turned "on". That's the whole point of this new breakthrough. By adding a few chemicals to skin cells, you can turn them into stem cells (or even embryos).

I'm not sure when the 'human' line gets crossed (although I suggested an answer above) but I don't think that a clump of 8 cells is 'human' and deserving of "rights". Would you scrape of a piece of your arm, add development chemicals, and then call it "human"?
11.21.2007 3:50pm
Chris Bell (mail):
And it should be noted that this breakthrough came from Japanese scientists who experimented on embryonic stem cells - not from Americans.
11.21.2007 3:52pm
Bad (mail) (www):

Henri:"You guys seem to be getting all tangled up in these speculative details, and missing the big picture. "


The details we're pointing out are not speculative: they are very real, and very undermining the obsolete essentialism that you seem to be laboring under. The fact that you think things have some sort of fundamental exclusive "nature" is a pretty big giveaway.

The problem is that your definition of what it means to be human is arbitrary, and it is trying to apply to a continuum that has nothing at all clear in the way of a distinction like a car and a computer.

In fact, a far more apt analogy would be a pile of spare parts that could be turned into EITHER a car or a computer, along with a set of instructions on how to build one or the other. You can start building a computer, but then get only halfway through even smelting some of the metals... do you have a computer yet? A car? You could ultimately go on to build either. Or you could build neither. But the raw materials, some basic framework, and a set of instructions on how to go about building a thing is not the thing itself.

You can't enter a paper recipe and some raw ingredients in a bake-off contest, so why do you think that you can present an embryo as if it were the same thing as even a fetus with at least SOME basic organ and brain formation? Trying to apply the rights and moral intuitions based on genetics alone is a cheap game of equivocation, not an argument.


You have turned it into a cell that has the very real potential to grow into an adult human being. Which is something no skin cell has ever, or could ever, do.


The distinctions you are making here are entirely phony. In every case you describe, a particular chain of causal events is necessary to lead to a new human individual. The fact that you place super-duper significance on, say, conception, is your own conceptual framework, not any sort of objectively justifiable point.

A "potential" human being is just as prevented from ever existing when two people don't sleep together as they are when a fertilized embryo fails to implant. From sex to fertilization to implantation to thriving to all sorts of stages of development, we have causal events necessary to get to someplace else. That's no different at all with the skin cells.

If you don't like it, then that's your fault for trying to pretend that "potential" is a really important concept... but then refusing to acknowledge what that really means.

The real problem is that you can't see anything but the end result of the process, and you think that this result is somehow the only "normal" and "right" end point: you see it from a teleological perspective.

That's a point of view, but it's not an objective one. If you want to convince me that it's worthwhile, then do so, but don't pass it off as science. What science says is that an embryo is just that: an embryo. If you want to make a case for it having moral rights, then make the case based on what it is, not on what you imagine it might one day be.
11.21.2007 6:51pm
lyofbrooklyn:
Opposing stem cell research is closing the barn door after the cows have left. Hundreds of thousands of human embryos are sitting frozen at fertility clinics, never to be used. If they are not used (and destroyed) in research, they will simply be destroyed (and not used) by their owners - the parents who paid doctors to create them and who are done having children. A tiny percentage of frozen embryos get "adopted" and there are enough parents who are uncomfortable with this practice that it will never be more than a small percentage. The rest will be destroyed, regardless of whether federal funds are used for embryonic stem cell research or whether this type of research is banned altogether.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research are fundamentally dishonest in that they NEVER talk about putting a stop to the creation of frozen embryos. They don't do this because they would get so little support. So instead they go on about how an embryos "IS" a human being.

Stopping embryonic stem cell research does absolutely nothing to stop the destruction of human embryos. It just prevents scientists from doing research that may well lead to treatments for currently untreatable illness.

What's the point in that?
11.24.2007 1:31pm