Democrats and Stem Cell Research (Again)

You'll recall I mentioned a few days ago that the Democrats have positioned themselves as the party of stem cell science. Timothy Noah has an article up at Slate today that looks at this from a wonkish point of view - for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing.

The Democrats' eagerness to discuss stem cells is strikingly different from their attitude before Aug. 9, 2001.

...

According to the Kerry campaign's polling, fully 69 percent of voters currently support stem-cell research, and a majority say they support it "strongly." It is no longer necessary - or even advisable - for Democrats to whisper their support for stem-cell research.

...

If you search the entire Bush-Cheney campaign Web site, you'll find only four instances where the phrase "stem cell" comes up. It's a subject Bush wants to avoid at least as much as Kerry wants to emphasize it. That's why Democrats will keep saying "stem cell, stem cell, stem cell" over and over until Election Day.

Chris Mooney has been keeping up his stream of posts on recent stem cell politics:

More on August 9:

Come to think of it, it's a safe bet that we can probably expect some political activity (and not just heavy drinking) on the anniversary of Bush's stem cell decision. So far I've only heard a little bit about what may be in the works, but I would bet that more's on the way. If I were John Kerry and wanted to make embryonic stem cell research a campaign issue, for example, I highly doubt that I'd allow this date to go by unnoticed and un-remarked upon.

A Steamroller in California

The state ballot initiative to pump unprecedented billions into stem cell research has raised more $ 7 million. The opposition has (so far) raised zero. The founder of eBay and his wife have donated a million on their own. It's still early, but it looks like the embryonic stem cell research backers may simply squash the opposition. If so, governor Schwarzenegger might think about hitching himself to the campaign--and then basking in the glory of being a beneficent science patron come November.

Stem Cells and the "Soul"

"Limiting research to adult stem cells is like asking the government to develop an Air Force only using prop airplanes and ignoring the existence of jets."

Comments

Left this note at one of the above references:

"Limiting research to adult stem cells is like asking the government to develop an Air Force only using prop airplanes and ignoring the existence of jets."

Actually, based on the current state of the science, greatly expanding the existing research into embryonic stem cells is like asking the Air Force to put all its money into researching anti-gravity drives and stopping any further development of jet engines.

"... we can perhaps arrive at agreement that, in the absence of brain activity and with no potential to develop brain activity, embryos that are left over from the in-vitro fertilization process fulfill criteria for absence of life and, therefore, can be used to accomplish a good end in healing."

We might agree to it. But, what comes next? What kind of slippery slope are we cresting?

Posted by: Reid at August 4th, 2004 9:26 PM

Hmmm.

A crest where the young are sacrificed for the old.

Baal it seems is alive and well. And worshipped by Democrats.

Baal: (http://www.barca.fsnet.co.uk/carthage-religion.htm)

To approve of embryonic stem cell research to believe implicitly that there is no such thing as a soul. Otherwise you have to ask the basic question: "When is a soul created and when does it become attached to the gestating human?". Is it at conception? First trimester? Second? Birth? After birth?

If you believe in the human soul then what effect does cloning have upon it? Twins are created when a single egg divides into two separate embryos. Don't twins both have their own souls?

Is the cloning of human embryonic stem cells, directly akin to the dividing that occurs in the creation of twins, creating individual humans each and every time?

*shrug*

Maybe we can't hear their screams because they don't have mouths. Or maybe it's because some people, with ulterior motives, simply don't want to.

For myself I could never sacrifice a human life to save my own. All people die. As a person with total kidney failure I could accept death much easier than trying to live knowing that my life was bought at such price.

The stain of murder is easily washed from the body, but never from the soul.

Posted by: ed at August 5th, 2004 12:00 AM

Ok, I'll ask you the same question I've asked many others:

Why are we starting the research with human subjects? Is there really no animal model for Parkinson's Disease, for example? If you were doing the research using animal embryonic stem cells, then you could do a LOT more to your test subjects than you can when using human embryonic stem cells in human test subjects. It's clear we don't have a solid handle on the basic science here, so why aren't we using animal models to get that understanding?

For the past 60 or so years we've had a system that served us quite well: experiment on animals / plants / bacteria, when we have something that works, THEN try it on humans.

We're not doing that with the embryonic stem cells. Why not?

Posted by: Greg D at August 5th, 2004 12:41 AM

I am with Ed.

What is the point to living longer, or living at all, if the young are sacrificed for the old? I do not want an extra twenty years to live at humanity's expense.

Barbarians foaming from the mouth are at the gate, do we really want to let them in?

Posted by: syn at August 5th, 2004 4:08 AM

Ed, I'll ask you the usual question here:

If identical twins each have their own soul, how many souls
did the embryo from which they developed have before it
split into two?

It has been firmly established that human embryos which
split into two more than two weeks after fertilisation never
go on to form two fetuses, whereas if the splitting occurs
earlier than two weeks after fertilisation, twins can result.
To my mind, the simplest interpretation of this is that any
soul than an embryo has comes into existence around that
two-week point, not before. Embryonic stem cells are
isolated from embryos only one week after fertilisation.
Hence, no soul is destroyed in this process.

By contrast, *after* isolation, embryonic stem cells do not
have the capacity to form a fetus: they can form all the
tissues of a human being, but not the trophectoderm, the
part of the early embryo that is involved in implanting in
the uterus and forming the placenta. So, we cannot say
that a soul is being destroyed when an embryonic stem
cell dies, any more than when (say) a skin cell dies.

Perhaps you didn't know the above facts. If you did, or if
you still think isolation of embryonic stem cells involves
destroying a human being with a sould, please explain why.

Greg: of course we're doing ES cell experiments with animal
models. The thing is, those experiments are going quite
well and people are dying. What's your point?

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at August 5th, 2004 4:14 AM

Ah yes, human intellect defines spirituality.

Compare....contrast/if....therefore....must be accepted....I am a scientist....life is a fact.

400 years of "scientific intellectual enlightenment" and all I got was a disgarded human embryo.

Posted by: syn at August 5th, 2004 4:56 AM

"If identical twins each have their own soul, how many souls did the embryo from which they developed have before it split into two?"

It seems to me that this is speculating about the intrinsically unknowable in order to confuse the obvious. How the embryo acquires a soul is beyond measurement, but that the embryo (split or unsplit) is just as much a growing human baby as it will be three or six months later is beyond question.

You accept that one embryo may split and become two, yet you have not considered the idea that one soul could do likewise. Why, keeping in mind (as above) that ensoulment is intrinsically unmeasurable, do you rush to accept the most restrictive definition of essential humanity? Should one not be more, not less, cautious to avoid grave moral error?

Posted by: craig at August 5th, 2004 8:19 AM

Greg's point is valid, and reminds me of an annoyance about this subject, where Ron Reagan and others declare that stem cell research will cure anyone of anything when we don't even know if this works.

Big on the hypotheticals, small on the science. And I'd think they should be demonstrating that this, you know, works, on animals before experimenting on humans.

Posted by: h0mi at August 5th, 2004 11:17 AM

research into both adult and embryonic stem cells is necessary. There will be some things more effectively treated by adult stem cells, other things that will be more effectively treated by embryonic stem cells.

The comment about propeller and jet power aircraft is telling. Both kinds of airplanes are useful for different applications. Providing funding for embryonic stem cells will not necessary come at the expense of adult stem cells. Both technologies will be developed concurrently. To suggest that the development of one will necessarly come at the expense of the other is to demonstrate a glaring lack of knowledge about biology.

The harsh reality is this: we all have a biological time bomb built in us. Its called the aging process. ANY and ALL technologies that can help us get rid of this time bomb should be pursued with the maximum amount of vigor. That is the REAL issue at stake.

Posted by: Kurt at August 5th, 2004 1:54 PM

Why limit research to stem cells at all? You wouldn't let the Air Force go into battle with propellar planes, so why restrict research on 3-year-old kids? Just because you find harvesting organs from kids immoral, you shouldn't impose your personal morality on science!

Posted by: Stephen at August 5th, 2004 3:38 PM

Craig said:

> You accept that one embryo may split and become two,
> yet you have not considered the idea that one soul could
> do likewise.

Thank you for this excellent point, which I indeed do not in
general consider, because opponents of stem cell research
also do not generally consider it. It may be instructive to
explore why they don't. One explanation that seems very
likely to me is that if souls can split then there is no reason
to discount the possibility that they also merge. This would
open the door to sperm and eggs having souls too, and I
suspect that religions have found that to be a speculation
too far.

I have a further question for you. Let us first suppose that
we reject the above and are content to work on the premise
that sperm and eggs do not have souls. Then suppose that
we come up with a method to alter the unfertilised (hence
soul-free) egg so that, after fertilisation, it is competent to
develop to the one-week stage at which stem cells can be
isolated, but will definitely not make it another week, even
in the hypothetical conditions of perfect implantation into
a womb. Let us go one step further and suppose that the
technique used here actually causes the **spontaneous**
death of the cells composing the trophectoderm, so that
the inner cell mass (containing the stem cells) is all that
is left. In this scenario (which is by no means fanciful, I
should stress), no human action on the embryo took place
following fertilisation. Would such a procedure meet your
criteria for caution to avoid grave moral error?

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at August 7th, 2004 3:43 AM

No, it would not, because you have done nothing to change your intrinsic assumption that the (fertilized) embryo has no soul; you have simply wilfully introduced a defect ahead of time to ensure its death. The fact that you intended its death even as you fertilized it has not changed, only the order in which it occurs.

There is no more distinction between the two than there is between partial-birth abortion and infanticide of a newborn.

Posted by: craig at August 9th, 2004 12:05 PM

I note with amusment the willingness of supporters of doing research using human embryonic stem cells to argue about souls, combined with their UNwillingness to discuss the actual science (see my post above).

Which reinforces my assesment of the situation, which is that its supporters are pushing it for religious reasons, not scientific ones.

Posted by: Greg D at August 9th, 2004 12:46 PM

Greg D writes: "... [embryonic stem cell research] supporters are pushing it for religious reasons, not scientific ones."

Bingo. Its supporters are the ones furthering a religious cause, namely that of scientism. They seek to firewall the profit potential of human life-creation technology (in-vitro fertilization, cloning, abortion, and selective breeding, it's all the same) against moral attacks arising from the Christian philosophy of essential human personhood and dignity including the weak and defenseless. If the embryo is essentially human and morally impermissible to manufacture and discard, then Roe v. Wade is morally indefensible. I see nothing but reverse justification from conclusions to premises.

Adult stem cell research is uncontroversial, apparently more successful in tests thus far, and more amenable to private investment, yet to some people embryonic stem cell research is indispensable. Anyone got a better explanation?

Posted by: craig at August 9th, 2004 1:23 PM

Craig, thank you for your reply. You did not, however, reply to my first
point -- let me rephrase it as a (compound) question:

You've said that you think the possibility that souls split when embryos
split to form identical twins is too high to discount and thereby risk a
grave moral error. Do you think the possibility that souls merge is also
too high to discount? If so, do you think sperm and eggs may have souls?

I should also ask a supplementary question. If (for whatever reason) you
feel that souls may split but they definitely cannot merge, what is your
view of chimeric humans? These are rare (but not incredibly rare) people
formed by the fusing of two fraternal twin embryos (embryos formed by
independent fertilisation events). This fusion event, like the splitting
of embryos to form identical twins, has to occur within two weeks of the
fertilisations that formed the component embryos.

Greg -- you accuse the pro-ES-cell community of unwillingness to discuss
the actual science. I replied to your only scientific point made so far:
you suggested that we are starting with human subjects and I pointed out
that you are simply incorrect, as ES cell research in non-humans has been
going on for years. ES cells were first identified in mice over a decade
ago and are the technology with which "knockout" mice (mice with one gene
deleted, typically) are created. This technology is firmly established,
so moving to humans now is precisely in line with scientific precedent,
contrary to your assertion. If I have misunderstood your meaning, please
elaborate.

Like Craig in respect of the ethical issues, I am always eager to discuss
any of these scientific issues (in which I am well versed). I regard
both as equally important, because I think the only likely resolution of
the current debate is the identification of technical variations on the
current stem cell isolation technology that avoid destroying any entity
that Christians think may have a soul, and finding innovative technical
solutions is what I do. Without understanding both the science and the
ethics in depth, such a solution is unlikely to emerge.

Craig -- I have no idea where you got the impression that adult stem
cells are more "successful in tests thus far". They are universally
considered to be less versatile than ES cells. Please direct me to
your source for this incorrect interpretation of the current science.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at August 10th, 2004 4:32 AM

"You've said that you think the possibility that souls split when embryos split to form identical twins is too high to discount and thereby risk a
grave moral error. Do you think the possibility that souls merge is also too high to discount? If so, do you think sperm and eggs may have souls?"

I don't know that souls split or merge. I do know that what happens to souls is intrinsically unmeasurable, as stated earlier. Whether sperm and egg have souls is way above my pay grade.

"I should also ask a supplementary question. If (for whatever reason) you feel that souls may split but they definitely cannot merge, what is your view of chimeric humans? ..."

Whatever sperm and egg are, neither is essentially the same as the human that will be produced upon fertilization, and neither could become a human without it.

Chimeras that occur naturally are a mystery, but if someone set out to create a chimera from what are already two humans that could exist independently of one another, that is morally objectionable.

My original objection stands: ESC research seeks to define humanity restrictively, which is a process that never has ended in good, historically speaking.

Posted by: craig at August 10th, 2004 8:51 AM

Craig wrote:

> I don't know that souls split or merge. I do know that what happens to
> souls is intrinsically unmeasurable, as stated earlier. Whether sperm
> and egg have souls is way above my pay grade.

Hang on -- if you're not sure whether sperm and eggs have souls, and you
regard it as a risk not worth taking to destroy something that MIGHT have
a soul (such as an embryo young enough to be able to split into identical
twins), then do you oppose the destruction of sperm and eggs? I can't
immediately see how you could fail to. Hence, I infer that you oppose
the destructive use of sperm and eggs for purposes that do not destroy
any fertilised eggs or anything that develops from them, such as IVF. Is
that a correct description of your position?

This argument can of course be taken arbitrarily far back in time: the
sperm and eggs come from germ cells, for example, and those cells come
ultimately from cells in the early embryo that are initially just the
same as all other cells. My conclusion is that the question of what
may have a soul and what is sufficiently certain not to have one that
it is OK to destroy it has to be answered clearly, or else Christians
are unable to clean their teeth because of the oral cells that they'll
destroy in the process, let alone use adult stem cells for biomedical
purposes. I'm not being facetious here, not at all -- only applying
the same logical approach that underpins the Christian tradition just
as much as the scientific tradition. Once we biologists have a clear
statement of what's OK to destroy and what isn't, we can get cracking
on a technical solution that everyone will be happy with; but without
that statement, we can't move forward to better medicine. I presume
that it is unethical to delay the development of better medicine that
satisfies ethical constraints by failing to tell scientists what these
ethical constraints actually are, so this seems to be an urgent matter
from the Christian point of view as well as anyone else's.

> Whatever sperm and egg are, neither is essentially the same as the
> human that will be produced upon fertilization, and neither could
> become a human without it.

Actually that is in considerable doubt now. The haploid nucleus of an
unfertilised egg can be induced to replicate to a diploid state without
associated cell division, following which development can proceed as if
the egg had become diploid via fertilisation. Development doesn't get
all that far, but it can get through a few cell divisions all right --
and the reasons it can't get much further (largely errors in imprinting,
the process whereby a small number of genes are expressed only from one
chromosome) are amenable to manipulation too. I'm guessing that you'd
consider this process (which is called parthenogenesis, as you might
expect) morally objectionable. But, regardless of that, does this not
at least suggest that unfertilised eggs (if not sperm) **may** have
souls, and thus that their destruction for biomedical ends is morally
objectionable too?

> Chimeras that occur naturally are a mystery, but if someone set out
> to create a chimera from what are already two humans that could exist
> independently of one another, that is morally objectionable.

OK - because one is interfering with how many souls exist, I presome.

> My original objection stands: ESC research seeks to define humanity
> restrictively, which is a process that never has ended in good,
> historically speaking.

Let me be sure I understand this point. I presume that you're being
over-concise above with the term "ESC research" -- and that what you
meant was "the destruction of something that might have a soul, which
ESC isolation currently entails". Right?

As mentioned earlier, I'm on the search for a technical solution here,
because I see no prospect of altering the ethical stance of opponents
of ES cell research concerning current methods of ES cell isolation,
especially not if the splitting/merging argument is found inadequate.
I hope you agree that this is a search worth making, in view of the
value (to everyone, including Christians) of biomedical treatments
that are ethically unproblematic. A technical solution is, of course,
only possible if the boundaries of what the anti-ES cell community
consider unethical can be identified, which is why I'm quizzing you so
minutely. I really appreciate your replies.

One more question. You said that to arrange, while its components
still definitely do not have souls, for something to die after a period
during which it may have had a soul is no more acceptable than to
destroy it while it may have a soul. Do you support the current Bush
policy of, nevertheless, making biomedical use of ES cells isolated in
the past? If so, would you support the use of ES cells that came into
existence in the future but not through **any** intentional human act
of destruction of anything that might have a soul, whether at the time
that it may have had one or in the "time bomb" style that I described
earlier? Suppose, for example, that the genetic underpinning of the
time bomb were to arise spontaneously as a mutation in some gene that
supports the survival of the trophectoderm, such that eggs isolated
from a woman carrying this spontaneous mutation will be fertilisable
in vitro by sperm but the embryos thus created will, with no action by
the researcher, spontaneously disintegrate after one week leaving the
ES cells to grow into a biomedically useful population? Would you
consider it in any sense ethically objectionable to use such cells?
Again, this is not fanciful, because women are sterile for all manner
of reasons and such genes may well both exist and be identifiable by
studying other mammals. Genetic tests of sterile women would then be
able to identify such a phenomenon. My impression is that this is in
the same category as organ transplants, but your impression may be
otherwise, hence my question.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at August 10th, 2004 10:25 AM

I've been wondering if it even matters whether or not we destroy something with a soul. If you believe in souls, doesn't that mean the soul gets a free ride to the afterlife? And the people doing the destroying will go to hell(which is fine since they don't believe in the afterlife anyway most likely). Seems like a win-win solution for everybody. Comments?

Posted by: Conan at August 10th, 2004 1:35 PM

Reid:
> But, what comes next? What kind of slippery slope are we cresting?

Stephen:
>Why limit research to stem cells at all? You wouldn't let the Air Force
>go into battle with propellar planes, so why restrict research on
>3-year-old kids? Just because you find harvesting organs from
>kids immoral, you shouldn't impose your personal morality on
>science!

I have much to say about the arguments against ESC, but I'll start with this one. The classic "slippery slope".

I won't belittle those who use the slippery slope; I've been guilty of using it in the past myself.

However, there is one important thing that defines what will lead to a "slippery slope", and what won't.

Take homosexuality, for example. In the U.S., recent moves to create domestic partnerships by various counties and states, and the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down sodomy laws, are typically seen as progress down the proverbial slippery slope.

In this case, the analogy holds: there is too much support for it, and too much apathy on the part of those who oppose it. Homosexuals don't have nearly as strong a claim to 14th amendment rights ("civil rights") as blacks, women, the elderly, and the disabled do.

Regardless, homosexuals nonetheless have been winning victories in the areas of privacy and "human rights" (not to be confused with "civil rights"). More and more people are coming out of the closet; more and more straight people are finding out that their siblings, children, and (in some cases) parents are gay. Opposition to homosexuality is eroding. Make no mistake; in this case, the slippery slope is real. (Some have argued that the slippery slope of the Supreme Court ruling will lead as far as legalizing polygamy; I have my doubts on this one, but time will tell.)

Now let's take murder. The Supreme Court has at times declared the death penalty to be in violation of various portions of the Constitution, most notably the 8th Amendment. However, is abolishing the death penalty the first step in a slippery slope whose logical outcome is the legalization of murder?

No! Preposterous. We may max out sentences at life without parole. Perhaps someday we will stipulate that parole is necessary (especially once lifespans are significantly lengthened), if sufficient rehabilitation is carried out over the course of decades. Who knows?

Perhaps in some far removed future (2200? 2030?), murderers will be sent to high security mental facilities where they will be treated with psychotherapy, psychotropic drugs, etc., then released after a few years. But make no doubt: we will never ignore murder, and in general, we will never release murderers back into the general public without having made some attempt to ensure that they are not highly likely to murder again (specific counterexamples will pop up, but in general...). Whether the primary focus is on punishment/revenge, or on rehabilitation/public safety, we will never throw our hands in the air and say it's okay to murder.

There are lines which we won't cross, which indeed we will do our best not to approach.

In the case of embryonic stem cells, we must ask ourselves: Is there really a slippery slope, waiting for us to take our first step?

From the point of view of the religious fundamentalists, there is. Those who view no difference between a newly fertilized egg and a full-grown adult human being, would--by definition of their view--see no further harm in using 3-year-old children in place of one-week-old embryos. To claim otherwise would be hypocricy.

Perhaps this is the ultimate irony, because the very people who claim to value life most are the ones who are unable to prevent a slippery slope scenario from occuring.

On the other hand, the scientists in question are ready and willing to draw a demarcation line. They are the ones who see degrees of human-ness in developing embryos, and for the scientists, once a suitable demarcation line is set, they will be very hard pressed to move that line. If that line is set at two weeks, per lines of reasoning like those Dr. de Grey set forth, then that line will stick for a very long time.

Another very definitive line is when the first budding of the brain stem appears. The brain harbors the mind, and the mind and the soul are very closely related; fundamentalists can argue this point if they like, but remember, we're talking about the scientists. The development of the mind is a very tangible demarcation line. It may be several months before a brain is developed with all sub-organs in place and functional. But its first budding is the safest place to draw the line, if we indeed are trying to maintain public support.

Between these two points (the two week window per Dr. de Grey, and the five week window of brain and spinal cord creation) there may be some grey area, but it's still pretty clear: no late-term fetuses, let alone 3-year-old children, will ever be used in the name of science. Scientists, ironically, will place exponentially increasing value on an embryo with each passing day, making any attempts to push the upper limit even higher essentially futile.

The key question now is where that limit will be set today. Because where it gets set today affects where it will be set tomorrow, and for decades to come. Insisting that no point after fertilization is acceptable, will only lead the scientists to give up appeasing the public, and the demarcation line will probably end up closer to five weeks. If instead the public are willing to accept that there is an exponentially increasing worth to embryos with each passing day, then the demarcation line will be closer to two weeks, perhaps even as low as 10 days. This perhaps more than anything is a lesson the fundamentalists should learn: that a 4-month fetus is worth more than a 5-week embryo, which is worth more than a 2-week embryo. Without this realization, history will ultimately remember that the scientists were the ones who possessed more humanity and compassion.

Finally, allow me to say that, if the upper limit ever did advance as far as the second term, I wouldn't see this happening for at least another 40-50 years. When might the third term be acceptable? I say it never will, but just to entertain the fundamentalists: perhaps in a century or more. It's not going to happen in our lifetimes, not unless a cure for aging truly is found.

Posted by: Jay Fox at August 11th, 2004 1:27 AM

We must believe that stem cells have souls, just as we must believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Any type of religious argument will never be credible enough to derail the stem cell movement, simply because religion is fictious and no one can prove otherwise.

As for stem cells being a human life form, I have always held that to truly be alive, you must be aware of your own existence. I personally have no memories of any type prior to the age of three years old. I would argue that you cannot take from a person what they do not know they have. Believe it or not stem cells do not know that they exist. Therefore, they would not know when they no longer exist.

If we are going to base our definition of life on what has the potential of becoming a life form, then perhaps all single people across the world are committing murder by choosing not to marry and procreate.

Posted by: Mark at August 11th, 2004 3:58 AM

Frankly, I can see more than a blastula full of unintentional humor in all of this 'soul searching'. Why only fret about HUMAN embryos? Can't you hear those linseeds screaming from between your grinding molars?

In all milk-souring seriousness, the God squad, as usual, doesn't have a point outside of their own belief system. The broad concept of the "soul", if stripped of its supernatural premises and put on a foundation of scientific evidence, turns into a set of cognitive abilities (from basic pain sensing up to emotions and various degrees of consciousness), for each of which a central nervous system of sufficient complexity is a necessary condition. I came into existence when my neural network evolved to a certain point, keep transforming myself within the continuity of a mind figuratively and physically changed by thoughts and experiences, and will be dead when the brain structures constituting my personality are destroyed. The last statement in this last sentence is more rationally debatable than the first, given the intricacies of possible mind-uploading, but that's another story. The state of an embryo consisting of nothing but stem cells was for all intents and purposes a prelude to, and not a part of my life.

You believe in a supernatural soul? Fine - it's supposedly still a free country where you can believe in whatever you want. But whatever your claims, they require verifiable evidence to be anything like a justifiable basis for public policy decisions.

----
And Aubrey, I appreciate your efforts to find a pragmatic solution to the embryonic stem cell debate, but this discussion suggests that such endeavors (eg creating spontaneously dying parthenotes) may only convince a few fence-sitters, most of whom would be open to secular discourse, anyway. Try to refute a fundie within his/her own belief system and they'll just come up with even stranger arguments to prop up their out-of-this-world axioms.

Posted by: zoeific at August 11th, 2004 1:12 PM

Jay Fox argues that the the slippery slope is inapplicable here, since Scientists (cue hero's fanfare) are in charge, but that if it occurs we won't be doing vivisection on second- and third-trimester babies for fifty years give or take, so no problem. Mark continues the line of argument with the statement that infants (and presumably also idiots, elderly Alzheimer's patients, and the comatose) are not sufficiently self-aware to be genuinely considered "alive". He does not say so, but it would seem that organ and tissue donation from these is fair game.

You do see why the above scenarios alarm those of us with a "religious" perspective, don't you?

I do appreciate Aubrey de Grey's attempts to find a bright line at which stem-cell isolation can be done ethically, but I must tell him that he is operating from the wrong premises; he seeks to ground humanity in a well-developed view of science rather than grounding science in a well-developed view of humanity.

He asks: "...if you're not sure whether sperm and eggs have souls, and you regard it as a risk not worth taking to destroy something that MIGHT have a soul..., then do you oppose the destruction of sperm and eggs?"

I'll try to clarify what I said earlier. If it is a fertilized embryo, it only needs to grow to become viable and it should not be destroyed. If for some reason it cannot grow to viability, it still should not be destroyed out of respect for its humanity. (Yes, I know that is a "religious" perspective; it is also the only way to reject a utilitarian view of human life.) If it is incapable of becoming viable without changing its essence like sperm and egg do at fertilization, then it is not in essence the same human it would be and I don't have a problem with its destruction.

"Hence, I infer that you oppose the destructive use of sperm and eggs for purposes that do not destroy any fertilised eggs or anything that develops from them, such as IVF."

See above. I have problems with IVF and cloning because they reduce human life to objects of manufacture, and as a side effect also usually involve destroying the "defects" in the process.

"Do you support the current Bush policy of, nevertheless, making biomedical use of ES cells isolated in the past?"

Reluctantly, yes. The damage was done in the past, no further harm can come to the dead embryos, and the stem cell lines are far removed from the embryos from whence they came.

"If so, would you support the use of ES cells that came into existence in the future but not through **any** intentional human act of destruction...?"

Again, out of respect for the essential humanity of us all, I would not favor this. There is a moral difference between using the data from Nazi Germany's and Imperial Japan's medical experiments on prisoners, and conducting new experiments of the same type.

Posted by: craig at August 11th, 2004 1:57 PM

Mark:
>I have always held that to truly be alive, you must be aware
>of your own existence. I personally have no memories of
>any type prior to the age of three years old. I would argue
>that you cannot take from a person what they do not know
>they have.

While I disagree with the phrase "truly alive"--plants are truly alive--I do agree with the rest of that first sentence. Being "human" requires sentience of some form, some minimal amount of self-awareness. A brain. Not just a bud of cells, but a minimally functional CNS, with all major sub-organs defined and functional. There is no precise moment when an embryo or fetus achieves this level. It's a process. And unless we have a very, very, ..., very good reason to do otherwise, we should err on the side of caution, and choose as early a stage in this process that we can justify.

Luckily, that is indeed where we are at now: one to two weeks is well before the first differentiation of cells into a brain stem begins, so there's no scientific reason to view the embryo as anything other than a clump of cells. Argue all you want about its potential to become a human being; it isn't one at the moment. There is no need to justify something that might be morally tantamount to murder.

I suppose I should clarify that self-awareness might seem like a two-edged sword. Dogs, cattle, pigs, mice, etc. are all self-aware at some level. Wouldn't that qualify them as having souls? To be honest, I do believe that most animals have "souls". But they're dog souls, and pig souls, and cow souls, und so weiter.

An adult dog, in my opinion, has a much more fully developed "soul", or mind, than a third term fetus. But make no mistake; I still value the fetus more. Why? It's not just about how developed the mind is, but what kind. A human fetus has a human "soul". Murder is the killing of a human. Whether we should treat animals better is irrelevant when considering the question of killing fetuses or embryos.

BTW Mark, your statement about not having memories before age 3 confuses me. Are you saying that 2-year-olds don't have souls, that indeed we can treat them as poorly as we treat dogs, mice, and insects? Perhaps that's not what you intended, but that's how it came across.

My oldest memory goes back to the crib: probably around 18 months to 2 years. My next memory after that is when my brother was born, shortly after my fourth birthday.

However, the mind is a continuum of consciousness. When I was age 3, I'm sure I had more than the one memory of my life before age 2 that I still possess today. When I was 2, I'm sure I had several memories of my life before 18 months, and perhaps some as far back as before 1 year. Before 1 year, the memory is probably measured in months if not weeks, but nonetheless, babies are very self-aware.

This process can be carried back into the womb, but at some point, the process must end. It's probably somewhere between 1.5 and 4 months; I'm not an expert in fetal development, so I can't speculate beyond that range.

zoeific:
>The broad concept of the "soul", if stripped of its supernatural
>premises and put on a foundation of scientific evidence, turns
>into a set of cognitive abilities (from basic pain sensing up
>to emotions and various degrees of consciousness),
>for each of which a central nervous system of sufficient
>complexity is a necessary condition.

Very true. The ironic thing is, scientists are making bigger strides than any religion in defining what consciousness--and indeed the soul--is.

Jay Fox

PS: I should point out that the more I study and learn, the more I refine--and in some cases--change what I view to be the soul. The "soul"--if indeed it does exist--and the "mind", though not exclusively equal, are intertwined to some very large degree. I am open to the supposition that there is some "essence" at two weeks, per the example Dr. de Grey gave. It's not what I believe now, but I am open to it. However, I completely reject the notion that from the moment of fertilization, an embryo possesses a "soul" of equal status with that of post-womb humans.

Posted by: Jay Fox at August 11th, 2004 1:58 PM

To clarify, my example of having no memories before the age of three, I meant to convey that had I ceased to exist at age one or two, I do not believe I would have experienced any sense of loss. However, please do not intrepret this as an endorsment for the blatant disregard of the lives of infants. It is meant to stress that a clump of cells in a petri dish, not created by loving parents, stands to lose nothing by its destruction. I would however, like to suggest that stem cells taken from embryos will remain alive inside of a human being if used for therapeutic means.

On another matter entirely, were I to have been brainwashed by a religious institution, to the point where I believed my pious behavior would result in my soul being freed to live eternally in paradise, upon my physical death, then perhaps I too would be wracking my brain to come up with logical sounding arguments for letting individuals, who are without question alive, suffer and die from potentially curable conditions. Sounds a bit selfish if you ask me. Holding so tightly to those religious beliefs, to ensure you won't miss out on the big pay off of eternal life, that you are willing to let your fellow human beings suffer and die. You religious types are a scary bunch

Posted by: Mark at August 11th, 2004 3:45 PM

Mark:
>On another matter entirely, were I to have been brainwashed
>by a religious institution, to the point where I believed
>my pious behavior would result in my soul being freed to
>live eternally in paradise, upon my physical death, then
>perhaps I too would be wracking my brain to come up
>with logical sounding arguments for letting individuals,
>who are without question alive, suffer and die from
>potentially curable conditions. Sounds a bit selfish if
>you ask me. Holding so tightly to those religious
>beliefs, to ensure you won't miss out on the big pay off of
>eternal life, that you are willing to let your fellow human
>beings suffer and die. You religious types are a scary
>bunch

You know, it's kind of funny, because I can appreciate this more than most. I grew up atheist, basically. I was into science and math, and Evolution very strongly appealed to me. By my high school years, I became very negative towards religious people; offended, you could say. I strongly opposed prayer in school, and it even made me uncomfortable to see people pray in public (e.g. at restaurants). I also felt that public officers who profess their faith were in violation of the Consitution's separation of church and state. In short, I was a "fundamentalist" atheist.

Even though in the 1980's and early 1990's, there were many unanswered "holes" in the theory of Evolution, these didn't bother me; we'd eventually figure it out, right?

In 1995, I was baptized into one of the Christian denominations. This was a turbulent time, because I felt like many of my core beliefs since childhood were being challened. And yet, I knew in my heart that I believed my newfound religion to be true.

Suddenly, I had to reevaluate where I stood on such public policy issues as prayer in schools and public officers professing faith. I also came to understand that the First Amendment is NOT about complete separation of Church and State. (An interesting note that many Americans do not know: it is never explicitly stated in the Constitution that there should be a "separation of church and state".) A politician can publicly express his or her religion. In fact, a pastor, or bishop, or Cardinal, could become a politician, without violating the First Amendment.

Indeed, a politician can give religious reasons for supporting a new law. The First Amendment does not disallow a "moral" or "religious" justification of a law. The reason for creating a law, and the legal basis of the law, are two different things. A religious justification cannot be codified into law, but that doesn't mean that Congress's *intentions* can't be religious or moral in nature.

Anyway, it took a good 5-6 years of painful reevaluation of my beliefs before I came to a comfortable middle ground on where science and religion intersect. For example, I now accept both Evolution and Christianity, and I don't see particularly why they can't co-exist.

Interestingly, in the last three months since I've joined the anti-aging community, I've been having to re-evaluate my beliefs again; for those who have been watching, they've probably noticed that my ideas are constantly morphing over time.

Anyway, somewhere along the way, I became "that guy". I've been the religious fundamentalist on certain issues, and I can fully understand how someone with that mindset would rather let a million people die than destroy a single embryo. In fact, I can almost "switch" between the two mindsets and *honestly* believe in my core that if 10-day-old embryos had souls, I would rather let a million people die ("of natural causes") than destroy one embryo, even if the embryo was going to be destroyed anyway.

However, it's a mindset that scares me, because it renders me unable to weigh moral questions. Which is the worse sin--Murder, or using profanity--if both mean I've become unclean and unfit for the Kingdom of God? Is it okay to kill a serial killer if the only alternative is to allow him to continue killing people? Just because I can put myself in that mindset, that doesn't mean I should. I try to stay far from that mindset, because despite what a religious fundamentalist might think, such a mindset is typically NOT a pious or moral one, ironically. Perhaps it works for your own personal life, but not when you are making decisions that affect other people.

I'll illustrate how this mindset can work:

Conan said:
>I've been wondering if it even matters whether or not we
>destroy something with a soul. If you believe in souls,
>doesn't that mean the soul gets a free ride to the
>afterlife? And the people doing the destroying will go to
>hell(which is fine since they don't believe in the
>afterlife anyway most likely). Seems like a win-win
>solution for everybody. Comments?

Very well stated. And true. If it were only the scientists who would go to hell, then this would be fine. But it breaks down a little further up the road. Here's the flipside of this argument, as seen by a religious fundamentalist:
-----------
It's 15 years from today, and now we have this new technology to cure diseases and extend lives by decades. But for those of us who had voted to allow the research, or to elect politicians who pledged to allow it, then we are all partially responsible. We become even more so if we *use* the new technology to extend our lives; this guilt extends to people who opposed it 15 years ago (i.e, today), but try to reap the benefits now.

In essence, we damn ourselves, and for what? To live another 10 or 20 or 30 years in this imperfect world? If an eternity in heaven is the trade-off, then clearly we must not proceed! Even if I, as a fundamentalist, will never vote for or use the benefits of this research, I still will have to sit and watch as millions of my fellow Americans around me consign themselves to Hell. They are my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and it is my responsibility to oppose this research and prevent them from damning themselves; I am my brother's keeper, and if I do nothing to stop this, then I am damned myself.
-----------
It's the deathist meme, taken to its extreme. Better to die and go to heaven, than to ignore my moral duty. Better to allow my fellow citizens to die, than to accept (or respect) their freedom to choose death and hell.

The wording will probably vary from fundamentalist to fundamentalist, but the idea is basically the same.

I think Mark summarized it best, so I'll quote him again in closing:
"Sounds a bit selfish if you ask me. Holding so tightly to those religious beliefs, to ensure you won't miss out on the big pay off of eternal life, that you are willing to let your fellow human beings suffer and die. You religious types are a scary bunch "

Jay Fox

Posted by: Jay Fox at August 12th, 2004 11:55 AM

Yes, I know that ESCR is a rather contentious issue. I also share some of the views of those who are leery of designer baby technology.

However, this is all a red herring until we get a comprehensive cure for aging. All potential approaches to curing aging need to be pursued. This is our first priority. Once we have a cure for aging and have secured our personal futures, then we will have plenty of time to debate all of the other stuff.

Posted by: Kurt at August 12th, 2004 11:59 AM

[Posted by: Greg D at August 5, 2004 12:41 AM]

[GREG D]: Ok, I'll ask you the same question I've asked many others:

Why are we starting the research with human subjects? Is there really no animal model for Parkinson's Disease, for example? ... It's clear we don't have a solid handle on the basic science here, so why aren't we using animal models to get that understanding?

For the past 60 or so years we've had a system that served us quite well: experiment on animals / plants / bacteria, when we have something that works, THEN try it on humans.

We're not doing that with the embryonic stem cells. Why not?

[MICHAEL]: But of course, we ARE doing exactly that. It's precisely because the animal studies in curing models of Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, infarcted hearts, etc etc using embryonic stem cells (and even more effectively, stem cells created using somatic cell nuclear transfer ("therapeutic cloning")) are so remarkable that scientists and patient groups are screaming for researchers to be given the funding and clear legal mandate to do the swork in hammering out the basic science, making the lines safe for human therapeutic use (Bush's 78 (oops -- that is, 23) lines will never be any good for therapeutic use because they are potentially contaminated by viruses from their mouse feeder layers), and ultimately bringing them into the clinic.

Check out, for instance,

Lanza R, Moore MA, Wakayama T, Perry AC, Shieh JH, Hendrikx J, Leri A,
Chimenti S, Monsen A, Nurzynska D, West MD, Kajstura J, Anversa P.
Regeneration of the infarcted heart with stem cells derived by nuclear
transplantation.
Circ Res. 2004 Apr 2;94(6):820-7.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=14764454

Barberi T, Klivenyi P, Calingasan NY, Lee H, Kawamata H, Loonam K, Perrier AL, Bruses J, Rubio ME, Topf N, Tabar V, Harrison NL, Beal MF, Moore MA, Studer L.
Neural subtype specification of fertilization and nuclear transfer embryonic
stem cells and application in parkinsonian mice.
Nat Biotechnol. 2003 Oct;21(10):1200-7.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=14502203

Lanza RP, Chung HY, Yoo JJ, Wettstein PJ, Blackwell C, Borson N, Hofmeister
E, Schuch G, Soker S, Moraes CT, West MD, Atala A.
Generation of histocompatible tissues using nuclear transplantation.
Nat Biotechnol. 2002 Jul;20(7):689-96.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=12089553

Rideout WM 3rd, Hochedlinger K, Kyba M, Daley GQ, Jaenisch R.
Correction of a genetic defect by nuclear transplantation and combined cell and gene therapy.
Cell. 2002 Apr 5;109(1):17-27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=11955443

Note that these are just the more interesting, nuclear-transfer based studies. The ESC studies have shown results in a much broader range of diseases. The nuclear transfer data suggest that the results using it will be yet more effective, because they are easier to differentiate, do not form teratomas, and do not lead to immune rejection (as third-party ESCs can). And then there are the less "gee-whiz" results, which aren't actual therapeutic uses but which could none the less lead to cures -- eg, the use of ESCs to understand the basic biology of Alzheimer's disease.

------------
[Posted by: Reid at August 4, 2004 09:26 PM]
[REASON]: Limiting research to adult stem cells is like asking the
government to develop an Air Force only using prop airplanes and
ignoring the existence of jets."

[REID]: Actually, based on the current state of the science, greatly
expanding the existing research into embryonic stem cells is like asking
the Air Force to put all its money into researching anti-gravity drives
and stopping any further development of jet engines.

[MICHAEL]: But no one is proposing ceasing funding of adult stem cells
-- just a greatly increased level of funding to embryonic stem cells,
more in accordance with their medical potential, and the removal of the specter of criminalization.

---------

[Posted by: ed at August 5, 2004 12:00 AM]

"Hmmm.

A crest where the young are sacrificed for the old.

Baal it seems is alive and well. And worshipped by Democrats.

Baal: (http://www.barca.fsnet.co.uk/carthage-religion.htm)"

[MICHAEL]: Of course, Baal's rival Yahweh also called on his cultists to engage in the mlk-sacrifice in the old days:

http://www.luckymojo.com/esoteric/religion/christianity/9601.sacrfce.bh

... but that's hardly relevant to the subject at hand. No one is proposing sacrificing the young for the old: what's under proposal is harvesting cells, not killing a person.

[ED]: "To approve of embryonic stem cell research to believe implicitly
that there is no such thing as a soul. Otherwise you have to ask the
basic question: "When is a soul created and when does it become attached
to the gestating human?". Is it at conception? First trimester? Second?
Birth? After birth?

If you believe in the human soul then what effect does cloning have upon
it? Twins are created when a single egg divides into two separate
embryos. Don't twins both have their own souls?"

[MICHAEL]: Actually, you're arguing the case FOR the ethical acceptability of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning here. The personhood or "soul" of an individual cannot reside in a blastocyst, because a blastocyst can still develop into two or more distinct persons: this is what happens in identical twins. Since twins are not the same person and do not share a "soul," the blastocyst from which they developed cannot be a person or "ensouled" entity.

[ed]: For myself I could never sacrifice a human life to save my own.
All people die. As a person with total kidney failure I could accept
death much easier than trying to live knowing that my life was bought at
such price.

[MICHAEL]: Since blastocysts are not persons, doing medical research on
them is not murder. Indeed, the cells aren't even killed, but
incorporated alive into the person receiving them as a medicine.
----

[MICHAEL]: I see that Aubrey already made this point. Craig responded:

[Posted by: craig at August 5, 2004 08:19 AM]

It seems to me that this is speculating about the intrinsically unknowable in order to confuse the obvious. How the embryo acquires a soul is beyond measurement, but that the embryo (split or unsplit) is just as much a growing human baby as it will be three or six months later is beyond question.

You accept that one embryo may split and become two, yet you have not considered the idea that one soul could do likewise. "

[MICHAEL]: ... because such a position would be logically incoherent. The soul is, by its very definition, the "thing" that makes a person who s/he is and not someone else: hir eternal, immutable, ultimate spiritual self. To suggest that the soul can split is to deny the very existence of the soul.

-Michael

Posted by: Michael at August 19th, 2004 7:52 PM

Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe

Posted by: WaltDe at August 31st, 2006 1:05 PM

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