February 12, 2004

My Little Bud Grows Up

The Longevity Meme reports on a remarkable achievement by researchers in Korea:

The Next Step in Therapeutic Cloning (Thursday February 12 2004)
As reported by Wired (and in numerous other places), Korean researchers have accomplished the next successful step in therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine: reliably extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos. As the Wired article says, "a Korean woman now has a set of cells that could one day replace any damaged or diseased cell in her body with little worry of rejection, if researchers can get stem cells to work therapeutically." The scientists have even managed to create a new stem cell line from this work, which is very good news, given the limited number of lines currently available. A New York Times article provides a good introduction to the medical significance of this advance.

Leon Kass, the Luddite General of the United States, was quick to comment:

'The age of human cloning has apparently arrived: today, cloned blastocysts for research, tomorrow cloned blastocysts for babymaking,' he wrote in an e-mail message. 'In my opinion, and that of the majority of the Council, the only way to prevent this from happening here is for Congress to enact a comprehensive ban or moratorium on all human cloning.'

You know, I'm not really for or against reproductive cloning. There are rational arguments as to why it's an okay idea, and rational arguments as to why it would cause problems. But this superstituous dread with which Kass approaches the subject is truly astounding to me. He is apparently not upset that a blastocyst was killed (not in this quote, anyway). If that were what bothered him, at least his position would be consistent with the Catholics:

Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director for pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, 'This is a move toward creating new human lives solely to destroy them in research.' He termed cloning 'the ultimate way of treating life as an object, as an instrument to an end.'

I can see the logic of that, even if I don't agree with it. The Catholics define humanity all the way down to the freshly fertilized zygote. A blastocyst is therefore "human" and it's wrong to use a "human" for research, not to mention killing it. Agree with it or disagree with it, at least that's a coherent position.

Contrast it with Kass' position. His great fear is that someday somebody is going to create one of these blastocysts and not kill it. And yet I bet he would describe himself as being "pro-life."

Go figure.

The general public is desperately misinformed on a lot of topics, but I think there are two that we really need to help straighten them out on:

  1. Cloning

    It isn't magic. It isn't playing God. It isn't new.

    Nature creates human clones all the time in the form of identical twins. Reproductive cloning would be nothing more than producing a late-arriving identical twin. Not the same person. The camera doesn't steal your soul, and neither will a clone. As I said, there are social reasons why this might not be a good idea, but can we please for the love of God get the idea that there is something uncanny or "spooky" about cloning out of our heads? There isn't.

  2. The Human Developmental Cycle

    Look, phylogeny may not recapitulate ontogeny, but people who believe that it does are at least on the right track. If you believe that, while forming in Mommy's tummy, you were first a tadpole and then a salamander and then a shrew and then a monkey and then, finally, Mommy's Little Angel, you're wrong. But you are right to believe that at some point you became a human being, and that prior to that point, "you" were not.

    Even the Catholics believe this. As has been pointed out in the abortion debate, Catholics must believe that the egg, prior to fertilization, is not human, or else fertile women would have to attend a funeral every month. Human beings grow out of something that may be living human tissue, but that is not in and of itself a human being. That being the case, it's just a question of where you draw the line.

The Catholics draw the line at fertilization, and that isn't just arbitrary. At fertilization, you initiate a process that will (or at least could) result in a human being. But that doesn't mean it's the only place where the line can be drawn, or even the best place. Life Extension advocate Reason draws the line thusly:

On that note, it has to be said that I object to authors describing a small clump of cells as a "human clone." In my book, a human is someone you can converse with, who can think, feel pain, and suffer the effects of Alzheimer's or heart disease. An embryo has none of those characteristics. It is a pathology in modern society that there are so many people who are willing to kill or condemn millions to suffer and die rather than allow the use of small pieces of artificially created tissue to cure disease and save lives.

I agree with Reason that a mass of undifferentiated stem cells is not a human being. It doesn't have a head or a heart or a nervous system. Those things start to kick in around week five, and take recognizable shape somewhere around week eight. According to the NY Times article, the stem cells were harvested from a four-week-old blastocyst.

If we, as a society, can define humanity as starting somewhere after the fourth week of embryonic development, we open up the possibility of tremendous medical advances. This needn't be a new front in the abortion war. Most people, even conservatives, even staunch abortion opponents, take something other than the official Catholic position anyway. Or else why would there be an attempt to put a specific ban on partial-birth abortions? Most people recognize that killing a near-to-full-term baby is different from terminating a pregnancy at three or four weeks. Otherwise, the move to ban partial-birth abortions makes no logical sense.

A few years from now, it may be possible to create an embryonic clone of myself. (Biology dictates that women are easier to clone than men, so it will be a while before I can do it.) Let's consider that embryo at four weeks. If I put it in the right environment, that blastocyst might grow into my identical twin brother. It isn't my twin brother now. It's just some growing tissue taken from my body and an egg I borrowed from somebody else. It would be an amazing little bud of life, similar to (genetically identical to) the amazing little bud of life that eventually grew into me. But we have a different developmental path for this bud. Rather than growing it into a separate human being, we're going to grow it back into me.

We aren't going to kill it; the whole idea is to produce a viable collection of ongoing cells. We will remove that part of it that makes it want to grow into a different person (satisfying Leon Kass to a certain extent, by the way) and otherwise, we will allow it to go on living indefinitely. If I am injured or get sick, part of this collection of cells will be reintroduced into the organism from which it came — that would be me — to help it recover. As I age, more of the cells might be introduced to help counteract the effects; still others might be put on a new developmental path towards being a finished "part": a heart or a set of lungs or a new pair of eyes.

Each time one of these procedures was done, this living human tissue would grow into a human being. Why would anyone insist that it has to grow into a different human being? Says who? My twin brother can't demand that he has a right to exist. I never have to create a clone in the first place. And if I do create one, I assert that I have the right (before it grows into a separate and distinct human being) to decide that it will be me, rather than him, when it grows up.

Posted by Phil at February 12, 2004 09:43 AM | TrackBack

I think, like most people who keep track, I see the therapeutic cloning debate fusing with the abortion debate: the point of contention in both cases is pretty much the same.

Regardless, the extremists make it ugly; people who are willing to kill and destroy human lives by the million in order to prevent small pieces of tissue from being used to save lives. Ugh.

Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 12, 2004 04:48 PM

I think, like most people who keep track, I see the therapeutic cloning debate fusing with the abortion debate: the point of contention in both cases is pretty much the same.

There is clearly overlap. As I wrote, it appears that opposition to abortion is much stronger in the later stages than the earlier ones. So yes, opponents of any abortion at any time will necessarily be opposed to therapeutic cloning. But I think they may be a minority.

Regardless, the extremists make it ugly; people who are willing to kill and destroy human lives by the million in order to prevent small pieces of tissue from being used to save lives. Ugh.

Unfortunately, this debate involves one of those dichotomies like "Freedom vs. Oppression." Both sides claim they are defending human life. While the elements who are ready to perform acts of violence in opposition to abortion are real, they are an extremist fringe.

Many more are willing to forego the benefits of stem cell research because they believe the cost of these benefits -- the sacrifice of a human life -- is too high. To the extent that they have chosen not only to forego these benefits, but to prevent society from enjoying them, they clearly must be opposed.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic with their point of view. Even so, people who find themselves stuck in the middle on this issue need to see that while both sides are fighting for the preservation of "human life," one side is working to preserve a highly technical and abstract definition thereof, while the other wants to bring about the end of very real human suffering brought on by disease and aging.

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