This Newsweek article on the latest innovation in stem cell research is infuriating. The author, Michael Gerson, is a Republican hack with no competence in biology, which seems to qualify him to be a serious judge of science to this administration.

The issue of stem cells was the first test of the infant Bush administration, pitting the promise of medical discovery against the protection of developing life and prompting the president’s first speech to the nation. His solution–funding research on existing stem-cell lines, but not the destruction of embryos to create new ones–was seen as a smart political compromise. In fact, the president was drawing a bright ethical line. He argued that no human life should be risked or destroyed for the medical benefit of another. This was an intentional rejection of the chilly creed of utilitarianism–the greatest good for the greatest number–because the greatest number would gain the unrestricted right to extend their lives by ending or exploiting the lives of the weak.

Seen as a smart political compromise…by who? Everyone I know saw it as a sham, a transparent attempt to put in place an effective ban on the research while keeping a few excuses handy to block criticism. The rest of the paragraph is built entirely on a false assumption, that what Bush was doing was defending “human life” (it’s a tiny collection of cells, the humanity of which wasn’t even accepted by religious tradition) and phrasing blastulae as “lives of the weak” is putting a ridiculous spin on it.

The author could have rewritten this to support a Bush ban on blood transfusions. “He’s making a smart political compromise by allowing the blood banks to use their existing stocks. He was highly ethical in ending the chilly utilitarian practice of sacrificing millions of lymphocytes—living, active human lymphocytes—for the gain of relatively strong accident victims and hemophiliacs.”

The new technique is to take an early embryo and just extract one or a few cells from it, leaving most of the cells intact and in place. This has been done in many cases to get a sample to analyze for genetic diseases; the few cells removed are destroyed, but the embryo as a whole can survive, be implanted, and brought to term with no detectable deficiencies. This is being viewed as an ethical way to harvest stem cells with no loss of “human life.”

It’s a way to get stem cells, sure. But it’s also a hopeless kludge, one that doesn’t seem to me to have much hope of actually being useful. Here are a few objections.

  • Would you do it? Say you’ve gone to a fertility clinic for in vitro fertilization, and the doctor says that they’d like to extract a few cells from the zygote and put them in a research bank. IVF is an expensive and iffy procedure as it is, and they’re going to implant four or five eggs in you because they know several are likely to fail, and this is an extra invasive manipulation that’s going to make them a little more likely to fail.

    I’m confident that damn few hopeful parents-to-be are going to let you experiment on the embryos that are going to be implanted, unless absolutely necessary (for diagnosis of genetic disease, for instance) or unless there is some obvious overt gain (one unfortunate example would be those parents who would let it be done to find out if the embryo is a boy or girl).

  • You might say that, well, you wouldn’t let ’em tinker with the ones they were going to implant, but they often harvest an excess number. You’d be willing to let them extract a few cells from the ones you weren’t going to use. But again, this begs the question. I, for instance, would let all the unused embryos go off to the lab for experimentation without this silly circumlocution of plucking out just a few cells, but if you’ve got that sentimental idea that these are little ‘snowflakes,’ potential human lives, would you still allow them to compromise their viability with an embryo biopsy? Be honest, now.

  • This doesn’t resolve the issue of what to do with all those excess embryos sitting frozen in liquid nitrogen. Are we seriously proposing to pull them out of the dewars, thaw them, suck out a few cells, and pop them back into the freezer for indefinite storage? Why?

  • Even this “compromise” is still illegal. Scientists are prohibited from any work on human embryos that puts the little blobs at risk.

  • Just as a little fantasy, I don’t think the proponents of this compromise quite realize what new ethical dilemmas they are opening up, and expect to see the door slammed shut once some of the possibilities sink in. One thing to think about: if you pull a few totipotent cells out of one embryo, a few more out of another and another, one thing you can do is reconstitute a chimeric new individual out of the bits and pieces—a kind of Frankenembryo. This isn’t at all far-fetched: tetraparental mice have been made, and tetragametic humans spontaneously occur.

    Here’s a scenario to freak out the religious right: it should be technically possible right now for a lesbian couple to have a child together that has both of their genetics. Both go in for IVF with donor sperm, two embryos are fused, and the chimera implanted for normal development. It’s illegal and medically unethical right now because it hasn’t been tested, but there’s no reason it wouldn’t work.

I further detest Michael Gerson’s conclusion.

Two conclusions: First, the president’s policy has been useful, giving scientists the time and incentive to pursue a number of alternatives to the wholesale destruction of embryos. Second, all this research and debate concerning a small clump of cells is an encouraging sign that American conscience remains on duty. They reveal an intuition, even among people who consider themselves pro-choice, that this clump is different from a hangnail or a tumor. It is genetically distinct, biologically alive and undeniably human. And when this life ends, like a snowflake in a warm hand, we know that something irreplaceable has been lost.

One: No, it hasn’t been useful. It’s simply been a barrier to research. Scientists would have pursuing the alternatives, such as this biopsy technique and AS cells, without the crippling of a good line of research.

Two: I find it very discouraging that American ignorance and superstition is still so endemic that they can think a clump of cells is human, and that putatively serious spokespeople for our government can still advance this hysterical, emotional tripe. I refuse to be equated with a dumb, undifferentiated mass, and what I find chilling is a government that can make that equivalence in the name of being pro-life.


  1. #1 Kristine
    August 29, 2006

    What the heck is so undeniably human in a clump of undifferentiated cells going to end up in a waste bin anyway ?

    Pro-lifers have not accepted that we are human by degrees, depending on which part of our genome you look at. I love this explanation by Dawkins.

    But it is we that choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species…This lawyer [A creationist who asked a question from the audience], with his trained discontinuous mind, insists on placing individuals firmly in this species or that. He does not allow for the possibility that an individual might lie half-way between two species, or a tenth of the way from species A to species B. Self-styled ‘pro-lifers’, and others that indulge in footling debates about exactly when in its development a foetus ‘becomes human’, exhibit the same discontinuous mentality. It is no use telling these people that, depending upon the human characteristics that interest you, a foetus can be ‘half human’ or ‘a hundredth human’. ‘Human’, to the discontinuous mind, is an absolute concept. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil.

    In a nutshell.

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