Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Stem Cells by Osmosis

Almost a week ago Michael Gazzaniga, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote that all clones are not the same. What Gazzaniga meant, more precisely, was that all forms of cloning are not the same. An important point to make after Bush’s state of the union characterization of all forms of cloning as “the most egregious abuses of medical research.”

But Gazzaniga doesn’t stop there, continuing on to attack the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research (ESRC), especially the president’s ban on developing new stem cell lines.
I wholeheartedly agree with Gazzaniga that the restrictive ESRC climate in the United States is a problem, and I find his critique of pursuing, for reasons of political expediency, alternative technologies at the expense of the best known research avenues particularly persuasive.
But I think that his attempt to redefine “human life” is, unfortunately, unlikely to be successful. Gazzaniga is right to recognize the clear dualism that causes us to view fully developed human beings – our friends, family members, even our enemies – differently from a cluster of embryonic cells. But, realistically, I believe this is something that most opponents of ESRC are implicitly, if not explicitly, aware of.

The more serious obstacle standing in the way of ESRC is not uncommon: an inertial resistance to new technology, a barrier of which Gazzaniga is well aware:
At the most recent meeting of our bioethics council, Patricia Churchland, a distinguished philosopher from the University of California at San Diego, observed that through history, medical innovations — from vaccines to anesthesia — have been initially resisted only to later be widely accepted. It will be the same with stem cells.

And in this prediction I think Gazzaniga is entirely correct. As with so many other technologies it will not be the reasoned examination of what constitutes “human life” that ultimately leads to the acceptance of ESRC. Quite frankly, that's just too much work for too many members of the general public who have other things to worry about at the end of the day.

The much more likely scenario is one that makes use of stem cell's own inertial energy to ultimately legitimize ESRC. The key to unlocking the political chains that gird ESRC is not to reconceptualize “human life” as a term inapplicable to a cluster of cells, but to reconceptualize a cluster of cells as no more extraordinary than being given a vaccine, or believing that the Earth is round.

Like it or not, stem cells are here to stay. We just need to give that fact a little bit more time to sink in.


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