Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Killing: science, society, and democracy

Well, here's one for scientists to ponder. A US court has put a restraint on the use of stem cells for research, on the grounds that it kills human embryos.  Of course, commercial and research interests who would stand to be limited in what they do, naturally don't like that, and will complain.  They'll raise all sorts of sanctimonious arguments about the importance of this research for human health.

Naturally, the religious right will feel triumphant.  They'll offer sanctimonious arguments about the importance of sacred human life.  If you were in that camp, you would, too.

Of course this is not just about human embryos.  From the instant of fertilization, a zygote is a human (for that matter, a sperm or egg cell is 'human' in important ways).  The abortion and stem cell research debates are off-base when the side that wants these to be legal tries to pretend otherwise.

As we well know, the other side typically takes a religious posture about this and says we can't harm human life -- unless it has some other color or religion, or could be targeted by a drone, or lives inexcusably in the Holy Land, or deserves capital punishment.  (Hopefully, they won't extend their religious thinking, as some 'religions' do, to stoning such offenders!)

The sanctimonious humanitarian argument about what should be allowed is often self-serving.  Even humanitarian scientists, and the religious, barely extend protection to mice, despite a lot of institutional committees established to protect against unnecessary cruelty.  Unfortunately for the mouse, cruelty is in the eye of the investigator, even though mice are clearly our close relatives (do they have 'souls'?).  And animal protection rules don't extend to insects and basically not to fish either.  So scientists, even those who know life is all connected by the threads of evolution, rationalize what being 'humane' is, for their own interests.  (Stoning mice for research purposes is, fortunately, probably prohibited.)

These are culture wars, in which ideas of what constitutes a killable or manipulable life are the symbolic grain of sand over which the combat takes place.   From carnivore to Jayne, we each have to draw the line where, for us, killing the innocent is acceptable.

So, what do you think?

Fortunately, it has become increasingly possible to redifferentiate or dedifferentiate somatic (body) cells from adults for therapeutic use on the same person, and most people, scientists and lay public alike, will applaud such efforts.

That won't, however, entirely deal with the issues, such as the use of those cells for research rather than direct therapy.  After all, if one of your skin cells can be grown into something more impressive, like a kidney or new embryo, how is that different from manipulating embryos as it's done today?  Is it splitting a soul into multiple parts?  What about transplanting a somatically cloned kidney into a donor's twin?

It's too bad we can't deal with these issues for what they are,  cultural decisions, but instead have courts and others debating as if this is about science, what any biologist knows to be true.  A zygote, a somatic cell, an embryo: all are 'human' in some sense of the term. Even insects show fear.  The religious can argue that their sacred texts tell them one thing; scientists can argue for the material practicalities of what they believe would be worthwhile research.  In a democracy, what counts as what kind of life is, to a great extent, decided by vote.

But our society shouldn't muddle such decisions or understanding of science by placing cultural debates within an arena of cultural combat.


occamseraser said...

"From the instant of fertilization, a zygote is a human (for that matter, a sperm or egg cell is 'human' in important ways)" !!!

so, is masturbation a federal crime too??

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I think that Biblically it's the sin of Onan. Whether he falls under federal jurisdiction I can't say. But you touch on the point of taking things to their extremes

Anne Buchanan said...

Well, that's exactly the point. One person's sin is another person's extreme.

James Goetz said...

By the way, most biblical interpreters say that the sin of Onan was his refusal to carry out the Levirate marriage tradition, not that any interpretation of this scene is one of my favorite bedtime Bible stories that I read to young children.

Anyway, I try to be as friendly to science as my conscience allows. However, I see a big difference between the elective destruction of human zygotes/embryos and human male masturbation/nocturnal emission/female ovulation without reproduction. I also strongly disagree with giving rats equal rights compared to humans, but capricious cruelty to animals is unacceptable.

I'm possibly the only dualist that regularly reads this blog. And I'll admit that I don't know when the human spirit joins with the embryo, especially when I consider the embryonic development of identical twins. Regardless, I believe in a sanctity of human zygotes that exceeds all other non-human biology. Also, I want to see the development of the best medical therapies. I strongly support all alternatives to stem cell research short of the elective destruction of human embryos. Perhaps one untapped method is harvesting EG stem cells from tubal pregnancies.

Ken Weiss said...

The point here, to me, is recognition of sincere beliefs on any side of these issues. Too often one side simply sneers at the benightedness of the other.

Whether masturbation is different from abortion, or stem cell research is stealing of souls, is up to each person's judgment. That's the problem, but also why in a democracy this really is a matter for voting.

In a 'civil rights' context, no one should be forced to abort (or to masturbate, for that matter!). But we simply have to have ways, as a society, to set bounds and the like.

I do animal research and while I don't torture animals I do 'euthanize' them. Whether that's moral is debatable. I also eat meat, and I allow someone else to work in the abbatoir, and I can pretend the stuff just shows up in the grocery.

Jaynes and many vegans just don't accept that. They draw a strict line. Abortion opponents aren't forced to abort their own fetuses, but they feel they need to prevent others from doing it. Likewise with stem cells, capital punishment, and war.

There is no easy answer except the ballot box ad bills of rights. Otherwise, we'd just be happy to kill each other over the issues.

James Goetz said...

I suppose that the difficult question involves drawing the line for civil rights. Who or what gets equal rights, mice, human sperm, zygotes, embryos, unviable fetuses, viable fetuses, infants...?

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, personally, I totally agree. But while civil rights are properly beyond majority rule (indeed they're to protect everyone from majority rule in a sense), they are for 'voting' and hence a topic for the ballot box in a diverse country like ours.

Drawing the line is obviously very difficult and one issue is where you draw the line for yourself, and where you would like to draw the line in relation to others (society as a whole).

It is obviously very difficult! But that's why, to me, it should not be argued about as if it were entirely a matter of 'science'. Thus, the question isn't whether a fetus of some age is 'human', but what rights it has and who determines that.

occamseraser said...

Time to cue up Monty Python's "Every sperm is sacred":

Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate

(but it's OK to waste frozen embryos)

James Goetz said...

Ken, I doubt that drawing the line in at least some cases can always be a mere matter of "science." For example, How does science tell humans that it's ethical to use poison to control rat infestation and flea infestation? And how does science tell humans that it's okay to euthanize mice in a lab but it's not okay to euthanize humans in a lab? Perhaps even PETA would never take a stand for the former. Also, imagine the response to a candidate for the NYC office of the mayor who took a stand against rat poison and roach poison.

Most nonreligious and religious people have no ethical qualms with using poison to control rat infestation and insect infestation. And something other than science leads the majority of humans to that conclusion.

Anne Buchanan said...

That's exactly the point -- these things _aren't_ matters for science to decide.

Ken Weiss said...

Anne's right. The point is that science can tell you if a chemical will kill rats, but whether it's right to use it, or people should be allowed to use it,is a social decision

James Goetz said...

Please accept my apology for my dyslexic moment.:)

Anne Buchanan said...

Of course. Glad we're on the same page.