A New York Times story from last week, Scientists Draft Rules on Ethics for Stem Cells, sadly not only typifies today's journalism, but also illustrates a truism of post-Newtonian science mentality.
The news is that the National Academies of Science have devised "ethical" guidelines for research using embryonic stem cells. Some of the research possibilities these guidelines mention are disturbing.
The report paves the way for research involving animals called chimeras that have been seeded with human cells....to test first in animals the human organs that could be grown from embryonic stem cells.
...there is a remote possibility that an animal with eggs made of human cells could mate with an animal bearing human sperm. To avoid human conception in such circumstances, the academy says chimeric animals should not be allowed to mate.
A second possible hazard is that the human embryonic stem cells might generate all or most of an animal's brain, leading to the possibility of a human mind imprisoned in an animal's body. Though neuroscientists consider this unlikely, it cannot be ruled out, particularly with animals closely related to people, like monkeys and apes. The academy advises that human embryonic stem cells not be injected into the embryos of nonhuman primates for the time being.
Third, like many previous committees, the academy says human embryos should not be grown in culture for more than 14 days, the time when the first hints of a nervous system appear.
On the first two points, even raising the possibility of creating what we might call "manimals" makes me wonder if we've gone too far.
These scientists would have us believe there's no intrinsic worth in an embryo. The third recommendation makes me wonder why 14 days should be any different than 13. If the nascent nervous system gives you qualms, why not apply an anesthetic?
Here's another doozy:
The academy also says that donors, including women who donate unfertilized eggs, should not be paid.
I suppose egg donation is analogous to organ donation. As happened with the pill, the unmentioned victims of this research are women. But I'm afraid that a ban on paying for eggs is not enough. Harvesting eggs is a traumatic, dangerous process. I've mentioned the February 28 bioethics conference I attended in Chicago. Nigel Cameron explained the reason the U.N. General Assembly voted so overwhelmingly to ban all human cloning: the research would require many more human eggs than can possibly be harvested from fertile women in the developed world, that they would have to turn to the developing world, i.e., exploit women in poor countries. I can imagine a similar dynamic at work with stem-cell research.
The Times shows great restraint by reserving the political axe grinding (or since they're always engaged in monkey-business, should that be "organ grinding"?) for later in the article.
The agency [N.I.H.] has been prevented from playing a similar role with human embryonic stem cells because of the Bush policy and the Congressional ban. Many scientists regret the forced absence of the health institutes' leadership.
"This shows how far this country has gone toward being controlled by religious precepts rather than scientific opportunity," said Dr. David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology....
It "is a terrible omen for our being able to maintain our position as the country that leads in biomedical technology," Dr. Baltimore said.
Dr. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a former director of the health institutes, said the academy's proposed rules "offer what the government cannot: reasonable guidelines for the several kinds of research being conducted with various sources of non-federal funds." Dr. Varmus said.
Following the reasoning of Drs. Baltimore and Varmus, perhaps the President should authorize federal funding for human vivisection: it's an area of research in which we have fallen far behind the noble scientists of mid-20th-century Germany!
Implicit in this entire discussion are a number of fallacies. In the first place, there is no ban on any form of stem-cell research, merely on federal funding of research on stem-cells derived from unauthorized embryonic stem-cell lines.
In the second place, the push for federal funding for embryonic stem cells has more to do with money than with science. Recall that there are actually two kinds of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are derived by dismembering a human embryo (i.e., a developing human). Adult stem cells are merely a special kind of cell in a developed human and their derivation does no more harm than taking any other kind of cell from your body. In fact a great source of adult stem cells is post-delivery umbilical cord blood, which would be discarded anyway.
The dirty secret of stem cell research is that ALL of the positive clinical results come from adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have given NO positive results. Conducting this morally dubious research requires federal funding for that very lack of results: no private investor is stupid enough to throw his own money at something so speculative, so why not throw away someone else's money?
Scientists are drooling over the possibilities "pluri-potent" embryonic stem cells. The irony is that this characteristic of plasticity is precisely what makes these cells so difficult to control: they so very easily mutate into tumors. For example, Chinese scientists injected embryonic stem cells into a Parkinson's patient's brain. Following the patient's death (unrelated to the therapy), the autopsy revealed a tumor in his brain composed of many kinds of human cells: skin, bone, heart, etc.
Meanwhile, in order to create political pressure, scientists hold out the possibility of miracle cures to diseases they know they could never treat with embryonic stem cells even if they could control their development. Of course, there's no one so gullible as a liberal, so California tax-payers continue their noble tradition of throwing their money away. (If it had to happen, is there a better state this could happen to?)
And of course the pseudo-controvery allows the media not only to sell advertising, but also to pillory their favorite whipping-boy: the "religious right"—those conniving anti-scientific, anti-choice fiends intent on robbing women of their "right" (to some unspecified something or other...).
As I've said before, liberals can only talk about themselves because they can only see themselves. When they speak of believers imposing their creeds on others, they are really talking about their imposing their anti-religious disbelief on the rest of us. The sacredness of human life is a "religious precept"—little more than a subjective feeling. (A "feeling" that forms the basis for our society's notion of right, I might add.) They see no intrinsic worth to human beings or to nature in general, and they want the rest of us to pony up the money for their embryonic stem-cell romper room.
Nicholas Wade, "Scientists Draft Rules on Ethics for Stem Cells" New York Times (April 26, 2005).