Monday, August 08, 2005

Dual Use and the Bright Scarlet Line

Memorial of St. Dominic

It is rare that I find myself disagreeing with both Charles Krauthammer and George Will on an issue, but that is where I am re the consequences of expanding the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Charles Krauthammer, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, has long argued for a policy of funding research on stem cells derived from "spare" embryos donated from IVF clinics that would be discarded anyway.

It is a good idea to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is a bad idea to do that without prohibiting research that uses embryos created specifically to be used in research and destroyed. ...

The expansion -- federal funding for stem cells derived from some of the thousands of embryos that fertility clinics would otherwise discard -- is good because the president's sincere and principled Aug. 9, 2001, attempt to draw a narrower line has failed. It failed politically because his restriction -- funding research only on stem cells from embryos destroyed before the day of that speech -- seems increasingly arbitrary as we move away from that date.
I think it is premature to characterize the president's policy as a political failure, at least until and unless Congress overrides his promised veto. I will admit that it is a failure of popularity, but the jury is still out as to whether it is a failure of leadership. We also ought to keep in mind that the president's restriction only seems arbitrary to those who fail to recognize that his objective was to put federal funding of ESCR on a path to extinction. Mr. Krauthammer also asserts that president's position is a practical failure.

It failed practically because that cohort of embryos is a diminishing source of cells. Stem cells turn out to be a lot less immortal than we thought. The idea was that once you created a line, it could replicate indefinitely. Therefore you would need only a few lines.

It turns out, however, that as stem cells replicate, they begin to make genetic errors and to degenerate. After several generations some lines become unusable.

In addition, there has been a new advance since 2001. Whereas stem cells in those days had to be grown on mouse feeder cells, today we can grow stem cells on human feeder cells. That makes them far more (potentially) therapeutically usable.
Someone bemoaning federal restrictions of ESCR has to recognize that this policy has resulted in a rush to the research space by a number of states and national private institutions. If I were to accept that ESCR is ethical, because of my federalist bent, I would still conclude there is no practical need for federal support. As it stands, however, the speculative nature of ESCR in contrast to the real results of adult stem cell research and the promise with umbilical cord blood, and now amniotic fluid, suggest marginal federal dollars are better directed to these alternatives.

While I disagree with Mr. Krauthammer's assessment of the political and practical states of affair, it is on the moral front where my differences are the sharpest.
The moral problem for that majority of Americans who, like me, don't believe that a zygote or blastocyst has all the attributes and therefore merits all the rights of person-hood, is this: Does that mean that everything is permissible with a human embryo?

Don't they understand the real threat? It is not so much the destruction of existing human embryos--God knows, more than a million are already destroyed every year in abortions, and thousands are doomed to die in fertility clinics. A handful drawn from fertility clinics where they will be destroyed anyway alters no great moral balance.
Mr. Krauthammer is in error on three counts here. First, he gives the "an egg is not a chicken" argument. I agree that the contents of an egg are not a chicken in the sense that they do not share identical attributes. However, both do represent different stages of development of a Gallus gallus. A zygote, or blastocyst, does not share all the attributes of an adult. Neither does a child, nor an infant, nor a fetus, nor an embryo. Note that that does not mean that they share zero attributes, and it is these shared attributes that are germane to a discussion of rights.

It is meaningless to speak of rights that are incompatible with the attributes of an individual. As such, persons at earlier stages of development do not share all the rights held by an adult, e.g., infants cannot have a right to free speech. Accordingly, because it is a living individual member of the family of man, which is biologically indisputable, a zygote possesses (at least) one (inalienable) right, i.e., the same right to life that an adult has.

Second, Mr. Krauthammer fails to recognize there is a shift in the moral balance between destroying nascent life and destroying nascent life after exploiting it for its parts. In contrast to Mr. Will's famouse description of the well-tamed life on the slippery slope, the proposed situation represents a pushing forward down the road after having made a wrong turn, rather than going back to correct course.

Third, the "handful" of embryos drawn from fertility clinic spares will not remain a handful for long. Consider that there is already a clamor for "fresh" embryos because they make for more robust stem cell lines and there will be increased pressure on the supply should the federal government enter the arena as competition for the states and institutions.

The real threat to our humanity is the creation of new human life willfully for the sole purpose of making it the means to someone else's end -- dissecting it for its parts the way we would dissect something with no more moral standing than a mollusk or paramecium. The real Brave New World looming before us is the rise of the industry of human manufacture, where human embryos are created not to produce children--the purpose of IVF clinics -- but for spare body parts.
Once you declare dual use acceptable, we are corrupted by the fact that "spares" no longer exist. The fact is that most embryos in fertility clinics are not created to be, nor expected to be, developed into a baby, but are created as back-ups in the event the first attempt at pregnancy fails.

The bright scarlet line, as George Will calls it, is crossed when the first clinic decides to fertilize more eggs "just in case," knowing full well that any not used will be directed ESCR. The line will be crossed and rubbed out by the first couple who were unsure whether to persue fertility treatments, but go ahead anyway because if they decide to quit, then they can always donate the embryos. The line will be crossed and washed clean when a treatment is finally discovered, and in response to the millions of embryos needed to make the treatment generally available, federal and state governments and institutions (universities, hospitals) create a revenue opportunity for clinics and couples by not taking donations of embryos, but offering cash for them.

Both Mr. Krauthammer and Mr. Will claim the moral acceptability of ESCR that avoids (bans) creation-for-the-purpose-of-destruction. However, the dual use policy advocated by Messrs. Krauthammer and Will, not to mention Sens. Coleman and Frist, et al., will likely be less successful in preventing creating-for-destruction than "Don't ask, don't tell" is, whether you like it, in preventing active homosexuals from serving in the armed forces. Instead it gives cover and incentive to those who would do just that, paving the way for the very "commodification of life" the new limits would be meant to prevent.

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