A reader has asked me to comment on this interesting and controversial technique for generating stem cells. Investigators in the UK are requesting permission to do this:
Collect ova from cows. This is routine, done-all-the-time stuff. The cows can’t complain.
Extract the nuclei from the eggs and throw them away, so that all you have is a lovely membrane-bound sack of cytoplasm and other organelles. People who eat hamburgers don’t get to complain about destroying potential life, so this is OK, too.
Extract nuclei from human cells and throw the cytoplasm away. These can be taken from non-reproductive tissues—epithelia, for instance, or some blood cells. This is not controversial either—you throw away human cells and nuclei every time you sneeze or brush your hair.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? Combine the cow cytoplasm from step 2 with the human nuclei from step 3, and by various finagling (and this part is actually the hardest step) reset the nucleus to a state which allows further development. Let the cell develop into a blastocyst, from which you can harvest stem cells for research. (Promise not to let it develop any further than that, though.)
Watch fundamentalists die of apoplexy. (This might be the most morally dicey part of the experiment.)
Now I’m asked what I think of this whole procedure. I can answer with one word:
After considering the ethics of this experiment and the consequences of the work if it panned out (really, step 4 is hard, with a low probability of success, although I also think that a lot of work will eventually make it possible), I have a more nuanced and thorough response: we are ethically, morally, and scientifically required to carry out this research and make it work.
There are good reasons for supporting it. One is on general principles: I think scientists are obligated to push hard at the frontiers of knowledge, and that sometimes means edging way past what Joe Sixpack finds comfortable. If we were to start curbing ourselves, the bioethicists would have nothing to do, after all—a good debate has to have someone pushing and someone pulling, and if both are pulling back, it’s no fun at all.
Another is that I think it highlights beautifully the silliness of the Sacred Zygote position. When we can make human embryos from a white blood cell extracted from a popped pimple, the whole “but it’s a potential life” argument acquires a new and interesting dimension, don’t you think? I’m all for making the sanctimonious apologists for Soul Magic bleat.
In fact, I want to go further than these scientists propose.
Don’t terminate the experiment after a few days when you’ve got healthy, growing blastocysts. Slip the best looking ones back into the cow. Work out methods for gestating them in a non-human mammal.
I want to be there nine months later when the vet reaches into the cow’s vagina and pulls out a slick, slimy, healthy human infant.
I want to see the Pope’s head explode when he sees it. I want David Cronenberg there with a camera, cackling happily.
I want the researchers to announce in a press conference afterwards that their successful experiment was funded by the Department of Defense, Sony, the Church of Scientology, and a private donor.
I want that private donor to be Paris Hilton, who, on accepting her cooing new clone baby, declares that she just didn’t want to go through that icky pregnancy and labor stuff. “It isn’t haaawt,” she’d say.
I want 100 million women to sit up and say, “What? I could outsource the nausea and bloating and pain and stretch marks and episiotomy to a cow? Sign me up!”
I want the phrase “family farm” to acquire rich new meanings. I want to see Bible Belt politicians lobbying for new fetus farming subsidies.
I want gay men to rejoice, and become the primary market for this procedure.
I want to hear snooty young bluebloods declare cows déclassé, and that they’d had their little Brittany gestated in a Kentucky thoroughbred.
I want the cow to be led away by its owners, ranchers under contract to the McDonald’s corporation. I want it rendered down into 10,000 perfect all-meat patties and distributed randomly throughout the country.
I want Rush Limbaugh to break the news over the radio that the womb mother of Paris Hilton’s clone can be found in Big Macs. I want to see some redneck in a gimme cap at the drive up window try to digest that information as he’s chewing ruminatively at his lunch. “Say whuut?” I think he’d say. I want him to keep on eating.
When all this comes to pass, then I’ll be content. We’ll be ready to have a real discussion about the biotechnology. It will be fun and exciting.