Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Stem Cell Technique

Stem Cell News Could Intensify Political Debate (NYTimes, 8/24; Nicholas Wade)
Stem Cells Produced Without Harming Embryos (NPR, Morning Edition). Audio

As usual, not very good titles to the articles, but good pieces both.

Here's Wade on the new technique:

The new technique would be performed on a two-day-old embryo, after the fertilized egg has divided into eight cells, known as blastomeres. In fertility clinics, where the embryo is available outside the woman in the normal course of in vitro fertilization, one of these blastomeres can be removed for diagnostic tests, like for Down syndrome.

The embryo, now with seven cells, can be implanted in the woman if no defect is found. Many such embryos have grown into apparently healthy babies over the 10 years or so the diagnostic tests have been used.

Up to now, human embryonic stem cells have been derived at a later stage of development, when the embryo consists of about 150 cells. Both this stage, called the blastocyst, and the earlier eight-cell stage, occur before the embryo implants in the wall of the womb. Harvesting the blastocyst-stage cells kills the embryo, a principal objection of those who oppose the research.

Initial reaction from the researchers, was typically over-hyped, claiming this solved all the ethical-political concerns over stem-cell funding. Kathy Hudson, from John Hopkins, the scientific expert interviewed in the NPR piece is more cautious.

She points out a set of concerns remains over the procedure itself. Namely that the removal of the cell from the blastomere invovles risk to the embryo. And there have not been longitudinal studies of children born from this procuedure. This one cell removal at the 8 cell stage has been used in Genetic Screening Tests for some time now. This new procedure is the first to use the technique to create stem cell colonies.

And as Wade points out under current federal legislation where this process fits in--if at all--is unclear. Of course a law always be changed or amended.

Stem Cell research, from an observational pov is totally fascinating to me as it's a preview of later ethical debates over genetic engineering, biotech moves to come. And come they will. The 21st century as Jeremy Rifkin said, will be the century of biology. Of human control, as we do now of the physical and chemical worlds. And with the promise of nanotech, the possibilty of influence/control of the underlying processes of materiality themselves.

With any new venture, there will be an immediate recoil action from many quarters. Like a train, those in the front stoking the fires wanting to speed up the engine, and those in the (metaphoric) caboose, trying to put the brakes on.

If the brakers are not always right in specific policy recommendations, they often have their fingers on the emerging dangers, particularly ethical ones.

The biggest braker in this argument is likely the Catholic Church or the pro-life lobby more generally (lot of evangelicals on board). But I do think increasingly as newer measures are found and public opinion puts more pressure on the Republicans, might see a splintering of the coalition into more moderate and hardline elements. Some willing to make compormise and adopt certain techniques over others--with strong constraints and supervision.

For the Catholic Church this procedure is meaningless because it entirely rejects in vitro fertilization and pre-implamantation screening altogether. They are against pre-implamantation tests because those tests are used by many to screen for certain inherited incurable dis-eases (e.g. Huntington's disease), and if the embryo is found to have them, often aborted. That argument has some strong logic behind it.

The C.Church however opposes all in-vitro fertilization because as it says, it divorces contraception from love. The lack of love of the genetic technician, not the parents. There's no proof that children conceived in-virtro and then birthed the natural way are an less loved by their parents. The "love-less" nature of the genetic labs is more symptomatic of the love-less, commercialized nature of medicine/health professions in general than in-vitro per se seems to me. I don't see these clinics as any more or less so than institutionalized medicine across the board. It does, to my mind, a great service, but yes there is a great lack of love and compassion invovled.

The Catholic Church's position on in-vitro to me though just heaps more lack of love onto would be parents struggling to have a child. The Catholic Church's position, which would send me veering off in a totally other direction, on in-vitro is much more tied into the control of sexual activity (Humanae Vitae) and its desire to latch original guilt through sexual intercourse, than it would ever admit. If humans create life in a dish, is it still born with original sin and hence needing to become a member of the Roman Church because original sin is pased through the lust inherit in the sexual act (or so it is claimed)? Would that lust not be passed on in a dish?

More than that, it gets to the issue of conceiving of God in such a mythic, childish way. That somehow humans by entering the sphere of creation--which we do across the board anyway--will somehow lose true humility before the Creator. The Creator of course conceived of as some big father figure in the sky who literally gets his fingers in everything.

What if we had a moral theology that saw humans as deeply responsible for both life and death in all our decisions, for all our actions always involve both. Intead of simple dichotomies between the pro-life (what forms of life?) and commercialized death industries. Instead of seeing ways in whcih both bring altenrate forms of life and death.

The more the pro-life lobby refuses to compromise, the less its wisdom is brought into relationship with mainstream science.

The brake position would only accept adult stem cells lines. If adult stem cell lines were found to be successful, that would in fact clear up all the ethical-political debate seems to me. Would be the perfect option for everyone. I'm not a scientist, so I'm not going to take bets on its viability, but more I'm interested in exploring ethical constructs around "what if not". If it has to be embryonic stem cells.

Assuming of course embryonic stem cells do hold opportunities for medical breakthroughs.

Kathy Hudson, at the end of the interview, almost as an aside, says she thinks we should return to the already fertilized but not yet destroyed embyros, frozen in fertility clincs. The so-called pro-life lobby says that we can't harm those embryos because people might adopt them. They are future babies waiting to be born. There's been a big drive to adopt these orphaned embryos and in typical Washington fashion, cute little children were cynically employed as photo-ops.

But sadly there has been very little in the way of adopted embryos. And here is a place where the pro-life absolutist view I think is causing death. Death not just in a physical sense, but more as St. Paul understood death, i.e. the outomce of sin. Mental, social, emotional death. Waste, and non-ecological non-holistic mindframe. A view where we see all our actions as degrees of light/dark and ask always for mercy and repentence. A view based on healing. Not one predicated on our own holiness--which has to do with our relationship to God, our amount of love, not specific actions. A total failure in evangelical spirituality, in my book. Trying to "earn" our salvation by convincing ourselves how holy we are.

We aren't holy. No matter how enlightened, all of us fall short. Either the Universe/God is merciful or we're all screwed anyway, as I see it. [I believe that the life/death process is ultimately redeemed-embraced by the Divine]. So given that context, where does the pride come from? Sin. It's false pride. It's arrogance and it's a desire to not live with heart in this love-wound, in this crazy drama, in this created process.

It's a desire to be holy, separate and other. That is where the so-called pro-lifers fail. They are right that love is missing, that boundaries need to be set ethically, it's just that the love is not to be found in any specific action declared to be right for all times, all peoples. And the boundaries have to be strong but flexible, always open to growth and new information.

Using those frozen embryos would cause their deaths. I think they should have never been created like that in the first place. But they were, and I think just leaving them there is also wrong. I don't think two wrongs make a right, but good can come out of evil.

That holiness-separateness view affects our governmental policy. For the fed. gov. has struck a weird position, one I think that gets the worst of both worlds in some ways.

The Fed. Legislations has not made criminal the destruction of human embryos. So if the government does believe that tax dollars will not be spent on the destruction of life, then I'm not sure how it can let slide private funds used for such a purpose. Which if I understand the logic right, is considered murder. Which means the government is neither pursuing lines of research that could be effective--and given this technique which clearly seems a step up from the earlier ones seems more plausible--nor is it intervening in the society. It's not preventing--from this point of view--crimminal activity.

Or to put it less controversially, the government is leaving this industry unregulated. Unregulated industries of course are where ethical no-nos, corruption, buy-offs, and all the rest take place. I would rather the government adroitly gets its hands dirty and therefore add a measure of social discourse/morality/norm creation to enterprises that are deeply ethical and not considered by a good number within those fields as such. That to me is the truly frightening aspect of it.


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