Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Few More Thoughts on Stem Cells

First off, an absolutely hilarious comment was added to my previous post (I added the word "absolutely" because I wasn't sure if "hilarious" should be preceded by "a" or "an". Can anyone help me out on that one?). It was all about how much money can be made on non embryonic stem cells. I think. It smacked of being written by a bot, or at least someone who flunked out of English. Anyway, it just solidified my view that this is really all about the money.

Also solidifying that view? Just about every article I've read since has at least mentioned the fact that on Obama's reversal of the policy shares of embryonic stem cell companies skyrocketed. Now that's to be expected of course, but it's really effective proof that there are just companies out there waiting to sell their product for federal money, and that we aren't really talking about advances in science here.
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One of the parallels I've been thinking about with embryonic stem cells is steak. Yup, steak. If there were a way for us to get steak without killing a cow, I think we'd probably all agree that it would be better to use that method, and spare the cow's life. Can we all agree on that? I mean, sure, it's just a cow. It's not as important as a person. It doesn't (and shouldn't) have rights. But all things being equal, it's a living being and that life has some value, right? So living-cow steak would be preferable to dead-cow steak.

The same is true with stem cells. Right now you've got your non-embryonic stem cells and your embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells require destroying the being to harvest the stem cells. Non-embryonic don't require any destruction. Embryonic are dead-cow steak, and non-embryonic are living-cow steak.

I know there are disputes about the value of an embryo, but two points need to be made. First, we're talking about a being that, if given the opportunity, would grow into a fully functioning unique individual human being. Certainly that's more valuable that a cow, right? Second, even if it isn't more valuable than a cow, wouldn't non-embryonic be preferable? I mean, it doesn't require destroying embryos. How is that not a no-brainer?
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One of the issues that came up a lot in my bioethics courses was Nazi medical experiments. A lot of "research" was done in concentration camps using involuntary human subjects that were essentially tortured to death "in the name of science". Truly repugnant stuff. In the process a lot was learned about people's tolerances to pain, what happens when they're subjected to certain situations, etc. After the war there was a big question whether or not we should even use this information, because it was so tainted. The question - thankfully - was largely answered that the information should be thrown out. It was simply wrong to use what the Nazi doctors had discovered because of their methods.

This situation is often used as a parallel in the embryonic stem cell debate. Now, as horrible as the destruction of embryos is, I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as what the Nazi's did. Not even close. But that doesn't mean the parallel itself doesn't have value. Because the question is the same: how much of a bad thing will we tolerate to get this good thing? If embryonic stem cells are a good thing, how much bad are we willing to accept to get them? What if instead of embryos it required us to kill infants? What about post-viability fetuses? What if we had to destroy billions of embryos to get just a little useful stem cell material? Where would we draw that line?

I wonder how many people have thought about this issue in these terms?
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Finally, one of the points that may be getting overlooked in the reversal on embryonic stem cells is that there are steps we can take to make using them less morally repugnant. After all, things can be more and less wrong.

First, it's important to acknowledge the moral imperative in trying to save lives. This is a point that's repeated quite often by supporters of embryonic stem cell use. Of course, they aren't the only ones who want to save lives, because people on both sides of the issue want cures to be discovered as a result of this research. I'll quote just one of the articles I read:

[Supporters of embryonic stem cells] "cannot claim a monopoly on being the Good Samaritan" by saying '[they] support embryonic stem cell research in order to help alleviate human suffering. Does that mean those who oppose embryonic stem cell research want to prolong human suffering?"

I think that makes the point pretty well. Still, it is important to note that good work is being done towards finding cures.

Second, it's important that stem cells only be culled from embryos that were slated for destruction anyway. After all, it's better to put to use the embryos that are already being destroyed than to create new ones just for the purpose of destroying them.

Third, we need to make sure that the parents' whose embryos are being used have given full informed consent, and that it is in no way coerced. Because we're talking about a big money issue here there's a very good chance that people would start selling embryos, or, even more disturbing, that doctors would start encouraging people to make more embryos than they'd need (for reproductive purposes mostly), and then would turn around and sell those extra embryos. This is not unfathomable. In fact, it's almost guaranteed. Just think Octo-mom.

Fourth, researchers should only be using embryonic stem cells when they can show that they need to be using them (as opposed to non-embryonic). Mind you, given the advances in the versatility of non-embryonic, this might be kind of hard to do. But that's just further evidence that we don't need embryonic stem cells.

Finally, we should continue to work to make non-embryonic stem cells more easily available and more obviously versatile, so that they can always be used instead of embryonic. Scientists shouldn't just be complacent and use embryonic now that Obama says they can. We should continue to strive for ethically superior option.

These steps will hopefully keep us on the right track. Because we're not looking at a done deal here. We can keep working our way to a better and better position - both ethically and scientifically.

Climb up to the roof so we can check out the view
I think somebody spoke but I didn't have a clue

29 comments:

Nate said...

For the record, I think the idea of steak from living cows is repugnant. Thats one step removed from just growing beef in vat a la "caves of steel".

Stem cell research is by far the most important field in modern medicine, in terms of its potential to find cures for many, many diseases.

All political posturing aside, I have been taught by faculty who actively work in the area, and there is little to no debate that embryonic stems cells are easier to work with, and higher yield. Yes, during the Bush administration great strides have been made with cord blood stem cells, out of necessity, as a most unenlightened policy was in place, setting back stem cell research in our country by years. Now that that dark period in our history is over, its a no brainer that researchers want to work with the best materials available.

When it comes to something this important, and believe me, stem cell research is really that important, we should not have to mess around with second best. Every second that stem cell research is delayed is spelled as suffering for millions of people, and quite frankly I do believe that anyone who stands in the way of this progress is in fact responsible for harming countless individuals, willingly.

There are ways of obtaining embryonic stem cells that are completely ethical, you mentioned some of them. Using embryos slated for destruction, what a waste to not put them to work I say. Also, I can guarantee you that if a call were put out for volunteers to donate egg and sperm to create more, that the call would be answered by millions, maybe by those who have seen a relative or loved one die, or suffer under some condition that could potentially be helped by the outcome of research, or others who just want to have a stake in their own future.

I say, even if the ONLY difference were that embryonic stem cells were cheaper than cord blood ones, that is reason enough. Research is a very expensive business, and if cheaper materials mean that more research can be done, then that is a serious consideration.

The hold up for you and others who share your view seems to be that ebryo equates to human life. This is a flawed perspective. If every embryo created, naturally or otherwise actually matured into a human being, we would already be at standing room only on the planet. Women and men are equipped with millions of spare eggs and sperm, because life is a crap shoot and only a small number make it all the way from fertilization up through life. How is there anything wrong with using a few spares, which is absolutely what they are, to ensure the life of those precious few who do make it through the maturation process?

Anonymous said...

1. The Vatican uses up all its moral authority arguing against condoms and paying off paedofile priests. Otherwise the Church could really be a driving force against this stuff.

2. I think the 20th century proves that mankind is mature enough to handle this kind of science. Not.

patric said...

why can't we just abort animals and take their fetal stem cells? and eat them?

Mike said...

Do you pronounce the "h" or not? If so, then it's "a", otherwise it's "an". So the real question is, is the word "hilarious" or "'ilarious"?

I know much more about grammar than I do about stem cell research. So yeah.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Nate -

A few quick responses:

Its a no brainer that researchers want to work with the best materials available.

Actually, the best materials available - for the vast majority of medical research - would be people. And you're right, scientists would love to work with the best material available. Left to their own devices, they'll do exactly that (see, for example, Nazi medical trials, Tuskeegee Syphillis trials, lead paint experiments, etc.). The issue here isn't what materials researchers want to use, it's what materials we find to be morally acceptable for use. Quality of the material isn't an ethical consideration. And this is an ethics debate. It is no response to someone who says "this is morally wrong" to say, "but it's really really effective".

Furthermore, HUGE advances have been made in non-embryonic stem cells. Sure, that was driven by policy, but doesn't the result actually mean that policy has been a good thing? Originally people were saying non-embryonic stem cells couldn't even come close to doing the job. Just a couple years later they're saying "oh, wait, they're actually super super close to being equally good". A few more years and who knows, maybe they'd even be superior to embryonic stem cells? If I gave you a PC in the 90's I could tell you, "this is the best type of computer around, all the best programs work on it, it's user friendly, it's the standard in industry, they're cheaper, easier to get serviced, etc." But after some considerable work, Mac's caught up to PC's, and maybe even surpassed them, right? Would you cling to the PC? That's what we're looking at here. Won't you give Mac's a chance Nate? Why do you hate Apple?!

When it comes to something this important, and believe me, stem cell research is really that important.

Says the banking insider: "when it comes to something this important, and believe me, stimulus money for banks is really this important...".
Says the plantation owner of the early 1800's: when it comes to something this important, and believe me, slave labor is really this important..." So on and so forth.

Yeah, we all know stem cell research has a lot of potential for finding cures and easing suffering. No one is saying "don't do stem cell research". We're just saying it should be done ethically. Putting ethics restrictions on research doesn't make it second best, it actually makes it better. There are all sorts of ethical restrictions on research. We don't allow scientists to just pluck people off the street. We don't allow them to kill the people who volunteer for research. There are restrictions on soliciation and payment and coercion and the form of informed consent and what they can do with the people and the other types of materials they can use. Heck, we've got all sorts of restrictions for scientists using animals. All of this, even though, if there were no restrictions, scientists could learn a ton more. Do you think we should allow any kind of experimentation? Is there any ethical limit that should be placed? Because you sure don't sound like you think there is. All you're talking about is the importance of the science, and it sounds like you think that's the single overriding concern in medical research.

Quite frankly I do believe that anyone who stands in the way of this progress is in fact responsible for harming countless individuals, willingly.

Does this prove true for any ethical restriction on research?

Also, don't be an ass.

The hold up for you and others who share your view seems to be that ebryo equates to human life. This is a flawed perspective.

First off, it's not a flawed perspective. You don't hold some sort of magical answer key on this issue. At the very least, recognizing a human embryo as having inherent value and sanctity of life are respectable and defendable positions (held by nearly half the population in this country). Don't be so flippant. Even if you disagree with it, you have to acknoweldge that it is a sensible and rational view. Second, no one is saying it is the same as a full grown human. It's not. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have value. You don't seem to acknowledge that it has any value. And that's a big problem in your position.

On a more generic note, Nate, you seem to really take the view that science and medicine trump all. Even the most progressive scientists in the mainstream think that there should be limits on research. You seem - at least in your rhetoric - to lack much of the balance and nuance that is essential to good ethical thinking. Maybe you've actually got it, and it just isn't coming across. I don't know. But I do know that you sound pretty extreme ("unenlightened policy", "dark period in our history", "anyone who stands in the way of this progress is in fact responsible for harming countless individuals, willingly", "if the only difference were cost, then that's good enough", etc.). Please, for the sake of your education, get into a bioethics course. You've said in the past that you haven't had any education in these issues, that it's just you thinking about them. And that certainly doesn't invalidate your position. But some deeper thought and exposure could be really productive for at least cultivating an appreciation of all of the issues that are in play. It doesn't matter if you don't change your positions one iota, it would just be good for you to realize how serious ethical issues are.

Zhubin said...

I'll quote just one of the articles I read:

[Supporters of embryonic stem cells] "cannot claim a monopoly on being the Good Samaritan" by saying '[they] support embryonic stem cell research in order to help alleviate human suffering. Does that mean those who oppose embryonic stem cell research want to prolong human suffering?"

I think that makes the point pretty well.


I find this plea not to impugn the motives of ESCR opposers pretty amusing, since ten inches above you invoke a spambot as definitive evidence that support for ESCR supporters "is really all about the money."

I wouldn't be against using non-embryonic stem cells if they were as cheap and effective as embryonic ones, but from what I know that's not the case, and even if they could become as cheap and effective it would require a good of deal of time and money for the R&D to get them there. That's a waste of resources, and I wouldn't want federal money going to it.

Nate said...

Matt,

My opening arguments tend to be worded a bit more extreme than my actual position, I suppose that I do it to generate a reply. And I guess that makes me an ass, but I can live with that.

I want to address a few of the things you brought up.

First of all, I dont think its fair for you to say that I dont see any value in an embryo. Au contraire, I think they are quite valuable, whether it be in their capacity to develop into a human being, or as research material. Let me go ahead and make one big distinction here, I firmly beleive that a human being is worth infinitely more than any number of embryos, and I would gladly poke and prod, and yes, destroy them, if it meant that an already living person could keep on living, or lead a better life.

There really is no fair comparison with what the nazis did, or the syphillis trials, because those were done on human beings, and I will make a distinction between human beings and embryos all day long.

I do believe that its important to have ethics in research, to imply otherwise is ludicrous! But with stem cells, its not an ethical issue, its merely a matter of collecting the bountiful materials and getting busy.

I know you have over half the country agreeing with you on the matter of embryos being tiny humans, so yes, for you it would be an ethical issue. Take a look at it from my view though, if embryos are not actually fully human, if they are in fact just a very specialized collection of genetic info, then using that info to help PEOPLE is a really good idea! There is nothing inherently superior about a majority opinion.

I think that you should try not to be flippant as well, comparing the importance of stem cell research to owning slaves!? For shame!

Dont lose sight of the goal here Matt, stem cell research is about improving health and life, without which there is nothing else. You cant debate about the ethics of stem cell research, or anything else for that matter, if you are dead.

As far as taking some sort of formal bioethics curricula, I really cant squeeze it in just now, oh wait, life itself is a course in ethics! What better teacher can there be than life experience, both personal and shared accounts from prefessors and colleagues. Thats right, my professors are not negligent, with every lecture I receive the unique perspectives of the many faculty and clinicians who have themselves accumulated a lifetime of experience. Ethics is a huge consideration, but like all things, depends largely on your underlying beliefs.

Just to be perfectly clear where I am coming from on this issue, I believe that human life is sacred, and it is incumbent on medical professionals to do all that they can ensure the health and dignity of all human life, in an ethically sound way.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Actually Zhubin, that bot was advocating the use of non-embryonic stem cells.

But why is that a waste of resources, to get non-embryonic stem cells to the point where they can always replace embryonic? I mean, we're talking about an option that a sizable chunk of the country finds ethically better (that includes emryonic supporters, since a good number of them acknowledge the harm in destroying an embryo, they just think it's outweighed by the good). Surely spending our money on finding ethically superior research is a good thing, right?

And what about the proposal that researchers show a need for embryonic stem cells? That's certainly reasonable, right?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Nate -

I think they are quite valuable, whether it be in their capacity to develop into a human being, or as research material.

I guess what I was saying is that you seem to miss their inherent value. For you the only value appears to be contingent on use (to develop into a full-grown human or as research material).

With stem cells, its not an ethical issue, its merely a matter of collecting the bountiful materials and getting busy.

Your failure to see an ethical issue doesn't mean there isn't one there. I understand that you disagree with the resolution I come to, because you don't see embryos as having inherent worth, but do you actually mean to disagree that there is even an ethical issue to discuss? Because if you do... wow. That's like someone who supports slavery saying they can't see the ethical issues inherent in owning slaves because, after all, they're just property, and therefore there is no ethical issue.

Comparing the importance of stem cell research to owning slaves!? For shame!

First off, I made the comparison to expose your bias and that we should take your word with a hefty grain of salt. Just as the banker or slave owner speaks about banking or slavery from a slanted perspective that over-emphasizes their position, so too does the doctor who is encouraging us to take their word on all issues touching on medicine.

But I also use it because it kind of works. You want medical research accomplished and you'll use/destroy discrete beings (embryos) in order to get to that result. Slave owners wanted planting and harvesting accomplished (arguably just as important as medical research, since, after all, people need to eat and wear clothes), and they were willing to use discrete beings (slaves) in order to get to that result. I'm not saying the destruction of an embryo is as wrong as slavery, just that there's certainly a parallel to be played out. Because the issue is "how much bad are we willing to accept to get to a result?" Are we willing to accept slaves to get to the result of having food and clothes? No. (Especially when we can get those same things by paying free laborers). Are we willing to accept destruction of embryos to have some advanceds in science? My argument is, obviously, no. (Especiallly when we can get those same advances using non-embryonic stem cells).

There is nothing inherently superior about a majority opinion.

You're right, and I wasn't arguing from majority opinion to correctness. I was just pointing out that you were being awfully quick to dismiss a view as entirely meritless, even though a good chunk of the world things it at very least has some merit (even if it doesn't carry the day).

What better teacher can there be than life experience

Ah yes, life experience, that really is the best teacher. You're right Nate, no ethics training is needed. Everyone has life experience, and that has resulted in everyone being so very very ethical. What was I thinking?

Ethics is a huge consideration, but like all things, depends largely on your underlying beliefs.

You might be surprised how completely wrong that position is. First, because underlying beliefs are themselves informed by ethical thinking. And second, because a person's ultimate resolution of an issue might turn on their underlying beliefs, but their ability to recognize and appreciate ethical concerns does not. I'm not asking you to come to a different result, I'm asking you to open your eyes and see the issues around you.

Finally, I'll reask the question I threw out for Zhubin: And what about the proposal that researchers show a need for embryonic stem cells? That's certainly reasonable, right?

Zhubin said...

But why is that a waste of resources, to get non-embryonic stem cells to the point where they can always replace embryonic? . . . Surely spending our money on finding ethically superior research is a good thing, right?

I don't find it ethically superior to use NESCs, I'd just agree to their use if it would qualm your ethical problems and if there's no difference between them and ESCs. But ESCs are not valuable enough to justify spending government money on finding a substitute, especially when that money could be going to ESCR on serious diseases that are ruining and ending real, actual lives. Delaying a cure for Parkinson's or Alzheimer's for even one day just to mollify concerns over the life potential of a cluster of cells borders on surreal.

If ESCR opposers feel so strongly about it they're willing to privately fund the creation of a viable substitute, then great.

And what about the proposal that researchers show a need for embryonic stem cells? That's certainly reasonable, right?

Sure, as long as the process doesn't take too much time or money.

Also, on a more general note, you may be surprised at how often you pull out the Nazi and slavery analogies, Matt. You may want to find less offensive ways of pointing out where you think others are wrong.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Delaying a cure for Parkinson's or Alzheimer's for even one day just to mollify concerns over the life potential of a cluster of cells borders on surreal.

And here I'd say that it only seems surreal if you overlook the inherent value of life. But that's just our own particular resolutions of the issue playing out.

you may be surprised at how often you pull out the Nazi and slavery analogies

Actually, I'm pretty well aware of it. And frankly, it pains me. I really wish I didn't do it quite so often. I'd much prefer subtlety and a more balanced approach. But I will say that, in my defense, when we're talking about getting people to even see that there are ethical issues to talk about, it helps to put things in stark terms.

Zhubin said...

I guess. I mean, I can understand your position in the context of abortion, when you weigh the life potential of a steadily growing fetus against the nine months of pregnancy for a mother and come out in favor of the fetus.

But I just don't see at all how someone can come down on the same side when the balance is between the life potential of a cluster of cells and the very actual suffering of very actual human beings. I'd throw embryos into a fire by the shovel if it gave even the slightest chance of giving a kid his spinal cord back.

Nate said...

Matt,


I feel the need to agree with Zhubin on this, you really need to cut back on the slavery and nazi talk. On several occasions you have challenged me to see things from your point of view, yet never once have you shown the slightest indication that you can see things from my perspective. And I am certainly not alone in my beliefs and many very fine minds agree with me. They dont exactly seek out a-moral village idiots to teach medical school.

Is my position really that hard for you to comprehend? Can you at any point admit that someone with my views might feel justified to express the thoughts I do? Because I recognize your position, and were I to feel the same as you, then I would clearly share your reasoning.

You always deliver your opinion as though you alone sit on moral high ground, and anyone with an opposing viewpoint is so vile that they should be compared exclusively to nazis and slavers. And once again, I refute your claim that using slaves to grow cotton and tobacco is an adequate or appropriate analogy to using ESC for medical research.

Maybe its not "my failure to see an ethical issue" but rather your failure to see that its not an ethical issue. Or maybe the real ethical issue here is that people who set back ESCR have had a very real and negative effect on people who suffer from diseases whose only hope of a cure lies down that road.

Yet again you imply that I dont see the inherent value of embryos. Wrong. There are a beautiful resource, in fact, I cant help but believe that the reason God directed evolution to arrive at a human physiological system capable of making so many spares, is so that one day we might make use of them to overcome some of the pathology we deal with. This ties into my whole belief that seeking to advance our understanding and knowledge through science gives glory to God, man is intelligent for a reason.

You mock me for not taking some class where I am spoon fed ethics, but I am forced to wonder about the value of such training if its result is anything akin to what you display. Do they teach you to assume you and you alone are always right and that those with opposing viewpoints are nazis?

And Matt, you are mistaken, beliefs proceed ethics, every decision one makes, ethical or otherwise, is shaped by one's underlying belief system. You see, reality is filtered through one's perceptions, a person's very understanding of life is shaped by their beliefs, its an unconscious process. Ethical deliberation is a conscious process that follows.

I think Zhubin provided a very rational response to your final question, time and money are very real, and very weighty considerations, and I come down on the side whereby all haste is made to ensure the life and dignity of those people already here.

Nate said...

There is one more thing I wanted to respond to.

You said

"...so too does the doctor who is encouraging us to take their word on all issues touching on medicine."

Yes, how very irrational that we should even consult with people trained in the medical profession when it come to matters that "touch on medicine". Because clearly a mishmash of plumbers, hair stylists, or bankers are a much better resource.

I feel that medical professionals should indeed influence all matters that touch on medicine, it is their area of expertise after all. In the same way, I rely on lawyers to be the stewards of the law, it is their vocation, and engineers to make informed decisions on engineering projects. That seems like a pretty rational way to go about things.

Matthew B. Novak said...

And yet you reject that we should look to ethicists on ethics questions.

Nate said...

Correct me if I am wrong, but isnt "ethics" the determining of what is right from what is wrong? Furthermore, is that determination not contingent upon ones beliefs? How then, should I look to anyone who does not share my beliefs for guidance on such matters? And shouldnt the dtermination of what is right and wrong be in context of the issue at hand? Are "ethicist so very well versed on stem cell research that they should trump the perspective of those who work in that field and dedicate their lives to it?

And why do you have such a negative view of Doctors and researchers anyways? Keep in mind, most (certainly not all) Doctors are interested in medicine as a means of helping people. Stem cell research is not about delighting in the wanton destruction of embryos, its about using them to find a way to improve the quality of life for people who are suffering.

Ethics, Matt, are driven by belief. Everyone is capable of making ethical decisions, and reading tomes on philosophy does not make a person infinitely more suited to determining what is right from what is wrong. Granted, not everyone takes the time to fully think through their position and make this distinction, and yes, many people often act in willful opposition of what they do believe to be right. But that is not the case here. I have given the matter much thought, I have weighed the issues, considered things from multiple viewpoints, and my final conclusions are that, in accordance with my beliefs, embryonic stem cell research is an avenue that must be pursued for the greater good.

Andrew said...

"I can understand your position in the context of abortion, when you weigh the life potential of a steadily growing fetus against the nine months of pregnancy for a mother and come out in favor of the fetus. But I just don't see at all how someone can come down on the same side when the balance is between the life potential of a cluster of cells and the very actual suffering of very actual human beings." --Zhubin

The value of an embryo is not in its "life potential;" the embryo is alive. It is a living growing entity, namely, a human being. The value of a human being does not rest in how fully developed or how healthy the person is. Clearly, an embryo is not fully developed. But then, so too are infants not fully developed. Likewise, people born with disabilities are not fully developed. Do infants or people born with disabilities have less worth than a fully developed person?

Abortion is wrong because it ends a human life--not a potential human life (sperm and eggs are what have "life potential")--without a morally sufficient reason. The hardship of pregnancy and raising a child (or just pregnancy and then giving the child up for adoption) are not sufficient reasons to justify ending a human life.

Abortion and embryonic stem cell research are wrong for the same reason. They have different motives, but they are both morally wrong for the same reason--they both end an actual human life.

"I feel that medical professionals should indeed influence all matters that touch on medicine, it is their area of expertise after all. In the same way, I rely on lawyers to be the stewards of the law, it is their vocation, and engineers to make informed decisions on engineering projects. That seems like a pretty rational way to go about things." --Nate

Nobody is saying we shouldn't listen to what medical professionals say about medical research. Indeed, a layman does not possess the doctor's medical expertise on the science behind embryonic stem cell research. Similarly, a layman does not possess the lawyer's expertise on the law or the engineer's expertise in engineering or the soldier's expertise in war. But, when it comes to decide what to do as opposed to how or if it should be done, that decision should not be left to those with the expertise to do it. It only takes a little bit of reflection to imagine any number of scenarios in which professional expertise could be put to a bad use. Doctors can tell us the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research (the ends) but should we also let them decide if the means (destruction of embryos) justify the ends?

On a different note:

It's not as if those who oppose embryonic stem cell research are somehow less compassionate or don't appreciate the suffering that the use of embryonic stem cells might help alleviate. Many people who oppose embryonic stem cell research have lost loved ones to or have friends/family who suffer from diseases that could potentially be cured through the use of embryonic stem cells. In fact, many people who themselves suffer from diseases/genetic disabilities/injuries that could potentially be treated by means developed through embryonic stem cell research still oppose such research.

Question to Supporters of Embryonic Stem Cell Research:

What about experimentation on a fetus? What if doctors believed that some medical advancements could be made that would eliminate the suffering of millions if only they could do experiments on fetuses? Suppose doctors did some experiment on a fetus and the fetus continued to develop and was born and grew to be an adult. And suppose that as a result of the experimentation, that person was harmed in some way? Would that person have some sort of moral claim against the people who did the experimentation?

I suspect most supporters of embryonic stem cell research would object to such experimentation, and rightly so. But, I think it's an interesting question because it boils down to this: if a human being does not have moral worth or rights before he is born, can he be wronged before birth?

It seems like a catch-22. It would seem bizarre to say there would be nothing wrong with doing harmful experiments on someone moments before birth (e.g., such that the person would be born maimed). On the other hand, on what basis could a supporter of embryonic stem cell research or abortion oppose such experimentation if humans don't have moral worth or rights until birth?

Zhubin said...

The value of an embryo is not in its "life potential;" the embryo is alive. It is a living growing entity, namely, a human being.

Well, we had this discussion earlier, but to summarize, it's your subjective opinion that the embryo is a human being, Andrew. Feel free to prevent your own embryos from being aborted or researched upon, but you have no objective basis to force others to follow your own moral code.

As for your question: not finding any moral worth in a cluster of stem cells (or at least not enough worth to overcome the moral claim on alleviating human suffering) does not require not finding moral worth in any fetus until the moment of birth. It's a spectrum, not a switch. I can easily find a moral difference between harmful experimentation on a viable fetus that will then grow into a living person and researching on a cluster of stem cells that will then be discarded.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

Out of curiousity, did you ever get what I was saying in the previous post about your position on relativism? About why you had to accept that the definition of life was subjective even post-birth?

I don't want to get into the subject again, but I'm curious about whether or not we were just totally talking past each other there. I thought my last post might have cleared it up a bit, so maybe it clicked? (Even if you still disagreed, which is neither here nor there).

Matthew B. Novak said...

Oh, also, Zhubin, I agree that it's a spectrum after the point of conception, so you're right that you could find a difference between testing on a fetus and ESTR. But you've established that you support abortion well into the late stages of pregnancy, so how do you personally address Andrew's point?

Andrew said...

"[I]t's your subjective opinion that the embryo is a human being . . . . It's a spectrum, not a switch." --Zhubin

I skimmed the post to which you linked; I missed the discussion that day. ... It's not my subjective opinion that the embryo is a human being. What makes it subjective? The fact that people disagree? To tie into the earlier analogy regarding slavery and the Nazis, the fact that some slave owners viewed slaves as sub-human or Nazis viewed Jews as sub-human does not make the claim that African-Americans and Jews are human a subjective claim. ... If it is subjective to assert that an embryo is a human, why is it subjective? Is it subjective to say a toddler is a human, and if not, why not? I'm not trying to be difficult, but it's an important point. What makes a claim subjective vs. objective in this context? It seems very objective to say that an embryo is a human--it has separate DNA from that of the sperm and egg donors (the parents), it is not some other animal or plant or virus, it is organic, it is growing, it's some living thing, it can be removed from the womb of the egg donor (the mother) and placed into another woman's womb and continue to develop fully. Are those not objective criteria?

If an embryo is not a human, what is it? After all, every mammal begins development as an embryo, and the embryo that is formed when human sperm and egg unite is different than the embryo formed when elephants mate.

"Cluster of cells" doesn't adequately describe an embryo, for physically speaking you and I are clusters of cells (albeit, many more cells).

"I don't think anyone has ever argued that a fetus isn't a life. The heart of the abortion debate has always been when the life of the fetus deserves protection, hasn't it? .... There's no point between conception and birth that a fetus definitively becomes life worth protecting. This is not because we haven't yet reasoned out that point, it's because the intersection between life/not-life is far too blurry for it. In the absence of objective lines, the only possible positions are those built on subjective opinions, none of which are answerable to, or even necessarily in the same room as, any other." --Zhubin from the post to which you directed me

So, are you saying it is a human but maybe not a human that deserves protection?

You're right, there is a spectrum:
1. pre-conception
2. conception
3. embryo
4. fetus
5. [some possible intermediary stage, e.g., "viable fetus" or the infant moments before birth or partially emerged infant]
6. birth
7. infant
8. toddler
9. kid
10. teenager
11. adult
12. middle-age
13. old-age

You say it is subjective to draw a line anywhere between 2 and 6. Why is that any more subjective than drawing the line between 7 and 8? Is there an objective basis for drawing the line anywhere? Can an adult cease to be human (or a "life worth protecting") when he gets old and develops Alzheimer's and doesn't have much left in the way of mental faculties?

"Feel free to prevent your own embryos from being aborted or researched upon, but you have no objective basis to force others to follow your own moral code." --Zhubin.

So, could I legitimately say "Feel free to prevent your own senile parents from being euthanized or researched upon, but you have no objective basis to force others to follow your own moral code?" Or do you think an objective line does exist somewhere?

Isn't birth an arbitrary point in development at which to ascribe moral rights? Since a newborn is equally as helpless and dependent upon others as a fetus, what is the distinguishing characteristic?

It seems to me that the most objective, most clear place to draw the line is at #2--that a new human is formed at conception and that all humans, regardless of their stage of development or mental faculties should be protected.

Zhubin said...

Well, read the whole debate again, it's all in there. You even give my answer to your first point with the next quote you cite.

But to summarize again, it's not a human life at conception, it's just a life. The point at which it becomes a human is objectively unknowable, as any answer depends on your own subjective determination of makes what someone human. Consciousness? A soul? Independence from the womb? and etc.

And, to answer both Matt's and your question about the subjectivity of human life post-birth, I know that my position is open to the charge that someone could define human life at any point post-birth. But that's fine, a person can think that human life begins at 25 if he wants. The law doesn't need to have and never does have a tight seal around all philospohical loose ends. As far as I'm concerned, in the absence of any objective knowledge of when human life begins, birth is the best point for the State to step in and say that for its protective purposes human life starts here, if only because at that point the woman's countervailing interest in her own body and privacy no longer exist.

But that's not the case prior to birth. Before then the only person affected by the question of whether a fetus is human is the mother bearing that fetus, and the State's own subjective position does not defeat hers.

That's ultimately the issue here for me - since the question cannot be objectively answered, I don't care about the answer, I just care that the question is answered by the person for whom the decision actually matters. In an abortion context, that's the pregnant woman.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Before then the only person affected by the question of whether a fetus is human is the mother bearing that fetus.

First, this statement obviously requires a conclusion that the fetus isn't a person. Because it already assumes that the fetus isn't a human. Which is the exact debate you don't even want to engage in. You're willing to draw the conclusion in favor of your default (protect life at birth, not after), but won't hear any discussion about whether that line is drawn correctly.

But even setting aside the fetus' interest, the mother isn't the only one involved. There's the father and other relatives. Granted, their interest in the pregnancy isn't as full as the mother's but it's still quite significant. And then there's society as a whole. I don't think it's a far-fetched argument to say that society has an interest in the people about to be born.

I think you significantly overstate your argument.

Zhubin said...

First, this statement obviously requires a conclusion that the fetus isn't a person. Because it already assumes that the fetus isn't a human.

No, it doesn't. The fact that it results in the same legal position toward abortion as the position that the fetus is objectively non-human doesn't mean the philosophy behind it is the same.

But even setting aside the fetus' interest, the mother isn't the only one involved. There's the father and other relatives. Granted, their interest in the pregnancy isn't as full as the mother's but it's still quite significant. And then there's society as a whole. I don't think it's a far-fetched argument to say that society has an interest in the people about to be born.

"Society" might have an interest, but as far as I'm concerned it pales like a star near the sun of the mother's interest. Determining the father's interest is a much more difficult issue, I agree with you there. I'm ambivalent about it.

Anonymous said...

Once you accept the premise that the purpose of the government is to help make us better people then you can't complain when the government decides that we should harvest the stem cells of the aborted, or of the retarted, or the elderly or anyone the governemnt determines is useless or helpless or unworthy of protection.

In a democracy run by lobbyists and special interests, you are gambling the future of humanity when you hand over to the government the authority to make us better people and better citizens.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

Let's try this again real quick...

Before then the only person affected by the question of whether a fetus is human is the mother bearing that fetus.

Ok, if the fetus is a person, then they are certainly affected by the question of whether or not they are a person, right? If finding personhood means the fetus gets to live, and not-finding personhood means they can be aborted, then that's a pretty big effect, right? So the very question of whether or not a fetus is a person puts into play the interests of something other than the mother that (depending on the resolution of the question) may or may not be a person. So to say that the mother is the only person with a vested interest requires the conclusion that a fetus isn't a person.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Once you accept the premise that the purpose of the government is to help make us better people then you can't complain

Wow, that's just not true at all. Because if you accept the premise that the purpose of government is to make us better people than you've actually got an obligation to be extra active in addressing the shortcomings and failures of the government. My philosophical approach is far from a justification of specific government actions, and much more a call for citizens to actively participate in government and direct it in positive ways. Having the government make good citizens isn't about the government acting on people, it's about people acting on government.

In a democracy run by lobbyists and special interests, you are gambling the future of humanity when you hand over to the government the authority...

Amen. That's why I'd love to see some strict limits on lobbying and special interests (specifically on corporate lobbying), and far more activity on the part of individuals. I am in no way an apologist for the current system we've got.

Zhubin said...

Ok, if the fetus is a person, then they are certainly affected by the question of whether or not they are a person, right? If finding personhood means the fetus gets to live, and not-finding personhood means they can be aborted, then that's a pretty big effect, right? So the very question of whether or not a fetus is a person puts into play the interests of something other than the mother that (depending on the resolution of the question) may or may not be a person. So to say that the mother is the only person with a vested interest requires the conclusion that a fetus isn't a person.

I was unclear. Let me rephrase it: once we accept that the answer to "Is the fetus a person?" is "There is no way to know," then the next question is, "well, who has the right to subjectively determine whether it's a person or not?" That's the question that I am saying the mother of the individual fetus is the only one with the vested interest in the answer.

Jeff said...

Sorry to be late here, but it would be beneficial to get steak without the cows. We'd just have to kill all the existing cows first.

You think I'm kidding. Cows emit tons of methane, which is WAY worse for climate change than CO2.

Yeah, your steak dinner and new house - construction waste accounts for half the crap that sits in landfills emitting methane - are worse for the environment than your SUV. Get over it.