Stem cells and cloning

President Obama wants us to believe that science has won out over politics and opened a wonderful new world in which science will be unfettered by out-of-step ideologies.  A good introduction appears on the bioethics.com site:

A Clone by Any Other Name

Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have asked on more than one occasion, “How many legs does a sheep have if you call its tail a leg?” When the respondent replied, “Five,” Honest Abe had a ready correction, something along the line of, “No, calling a tail a leg does not make it so.”

Abraham Lincoln has had many admirers throughout the years, including President Obama. Now it appears that the nation’s interest in our 16th President has been rekindled. Perhaps we can all learn something anew from this hero: straight talk. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that President Obama has declared human cloning to be “‘dangerous, profoundly wrong’” and has no place in society.” Further, the report stated that Mr. Obama “would ensure that the government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.”

I would like to agree with President Obama in calling cloning “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong,” but I don’t think I can for a very basic reason. When one agrees with another, both need to mean the same thing. That is, the words used need to mean the same thing. When President Obama uses the term “cloning” he uses it in an artificially limited way. He apparently uses the term, “cloning” only to indicate the birth of human clones (or at least, the implantation in a uterus of a cloned embryo). This particular example of obfuscation has been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean it should continue to be used. Reproducing embryos asexually for either research or for implantation is cloning. The technology employed is the same; it is simply the dispositions of the embryos that are different. To call one cloning, and the other “not cloning” is either misunderstanding or misrepresenting the science involved. Either is not good where our nation’s policies are concerned.

Here is a test. A scientist uses somatic cell nuclear transfer to produce (asexually) embryos in the lab: four are used for research, and one is implanted in a woman’s uterus. How many embryos have been cloned? President Lincoln, in my estimation, would say “five”.

Yet there is another issue that concerns me as well:  

What is it about embryonic stem cell research that makes it “science”, and therefore seemingly self-evidentially above politics or morals, yet makes cloning “profoundly wrong?”   

It is apparent that Mr. Obama is a product of his postmodern times and our misguided teaching in the science classroom. We as a society have been raising up several generations of children who have been indoctrinated into the postmodern way if “thinking” about life. Part of this culture is an inability to discern where science stops and something else – call it religion, philosophy, metaphysics, or whatever – begins. More accurately stated, Mr. Obama, like many in his generation, is unable to see that his view of right and wrong is inconsistent and incoherent.  And, it is apparently ‘above his pay grade’ as well, to be able to locate the line between actual science and the worldview assumptions behind it.

In their opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, Robert George and Eric Cohen put it this way:

“Moderate” Mr. Obama’s policy is not. It will promote a whole new industry of embryo creation and destruction, including the creation of human embryos by cloning for research in which they are destroyed. It forces American taxpayers, including those who see the deliberate taking of human life in the embryonic stage as profoundly unjust, to be complicit in this practice.

Mr. Obama made a big point in his speech of claiming to bring integrity back to science policy, and his desire to remove the previous administration’s ideological agenda from scientific decision-making. This claim of taking science out of politics is false and misguided on two counts.

First, the Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos. Inexplicably — apart from political motivations — Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.

Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is in the deepest sense antidemocratic. The question of whether to destroy human embryos for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.

For those who believe in the highest ideals of deliberative democracy, and those who believe we mistreat the most vulnerable human lives at our own moral peril, Mr. Obama’s claim of “taking politics out of science” should be lamented, not celebrated.

So Mr. Obama has exercised his power to put my money where his mouth – and his ideology –  is!  Mr. President, I dissent.  I do not agree that this is a non-political issue.  And your statement that you are a man of faith notwithstanding, I would submit that this is a profoundly non-scientific issue, and that your attempt to characterize it as something else is disingenuous.  The God you worship may look the other way as humans are destroyed for the sake of other humans, but the God I worship most definitely does not.

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12 thoughts on “Stem cells and cloning

  1. shamelesslyatheist

    What an emotionalistic diatribe. You have not made one argument as to <em?why embryonic stem cell research is unethical. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos with the consent of the parents that would have been unused for in vitro fertilization procedures and discarded. What could be more of a waste of life than to not make use of these cells that were destined to be destroyed?

    There are no easy answers here, but at least I can state why I support embryonic stem cell research. Leave the ‘mad scientist’ characterizations to Hollywood. Scientists have values, just like you (are you surprised?). Just because other people’s values may differ from yours does not invalidate them or mean that they have no values. When you can articulate why you think it’s wrong, and visit those in hospital paralyzed by spinal cord injury or tremble uncontrollably with Parkinson’s and tell these people “No, I deny you the hope of cure that stem cell research will provide.” maybe I’ll take another look at your opinion. But at this point, I find no reason to respect this uninformed one at all.

    1. I’m afraid you missed my points. You may be right that I did not argue that embryonic stem cell research is unethical. But it was not my intent to do do. What I did say is that 1) The stem cell research Mr. Obama sees as ‘just science’ involves the creation of embryos that would then be destroyed. The creation of those embryos is accomplished via cloning. So did you miss this part of the bioethics post?

      Here is a test. A scientist uses somatic cell nuclear transfer to produce (asexually) embryos in the lab: four are used for research, and one is implanted in a woman’s uterus. How many embryos have been cloned? President Lincoln, in my estimation, would say “five”.

      2) I also argued that Mr. Obama’s assertion that ‘Stem cell research is just science and does not involve any moral issues’ is obfuscatory at best. Regardless of whether you believe stem cell research is right or wrong, it is impossible to arrive at that position without some framework of ethical or moral reference. The fact that you seemingly take Obama at face value when he asserts there are no moral issues is evidence that there are many Americans who do not see that distinction either.

      3) I argued that postmodern thinking (where absolute truth and objective moral values do not exist) and the implicit atheism that is built into the teaching of science in our classrooms are responsible not only for Mr. Obama’s confusing and incoherent moral value system, but also for several generations of people who have been systematically fed the message (which is itself not scientifically defensible) that it is not possible to be intellectually congruent and a believer in God at the same time.

      4) I argued finally, that when my representatives in the government are unable to distinguish between what is actually science and what is a philosophical or religious assumption behind a decision to approve a field of scientific endeavor, and when they have the power to use tax dollars to pursue that research, they force me to fund activities that I find morally reprehensible.

      I get that you are OK with it, but I would like to ask you why you feel that way? In other words, what is your moral value system? How is it that you care for some people and have no problem throwing others in the incinerator? I have no doubt that scientists have values. It’s just that unless they are living by a well defined moral code, no one knows what those values are or how they are derived.

      The thing that makes all of this so ironic and so outrageous is that it is no longer necessary to create embryos and destroy them in order to get the stem cells needed for research. We are producing them from skin cells! Further, the results that have been achieved using adult stem cells has also been encouraging. So why are we creating clones and then killing them?

      Finally, with regard to this sentence – “Just because other people’s values may differ from yours does not invalidate them or mean that they have no values. When you can articulate why you think it’s wrong, and visit those in hospital paralyzed by spinal cord injury or tremble uncontrollably with Parkinson’s and tell these people “No, I deny you the hope of cure that stem cell research will provide.” maybe I’ll take another look at your opinion. But at this point, I find no reason to respect this uninformed one at all.” Let me say this. I may not agree with your opinion on the morality of stem cell research, but that does not mean that I see your position as ‘invalid’. Indeed, part of my value system is that I would defend your right to hold that or any opinion to the death if it ever came to that, even if I believe that your opinion is wrong.

      Thank you for submitting your thoughts!

  2. mgarelick

    I think I agree that there is a problem with Obama’s statements, but for the opposite reason. Why is human cloning (in the sense that Obama used the phrase) “dangerous, profoundly wrong?” I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a rigorous philosophical argument against it. Further, it is not at all clear to me why you would be against it. (In fact, I don’t think you actually said you were; but if you were, what would you see as the fundamental moral difference between cloning and other reproductive assistance technologies?

    1. Interesting question. You’d have to ask him. For me, the question is more one of what we have to do in order to clone. We have to asexually create embryos (we have to create them by cloning) then we destroy them. Any reproductive technology that involves the destruction of human life is morally repugnant.

  3. mgarelick

    “So why are we creating clones and then killing them?”

    Why indeed. I know next to nothing about the science of this and I can’t evaluate the validity of your claim that the results from adult stem cells are “encouraging,” so my thinking is along these lines: wouldn’t a scientist, all other things being equal, use the methodology with the lowest cost/benefit ratio? If one assumes, as I do, that most scientists involved in this research have no free-standing desire to destroy human embryos for the fun of it, then if embryonic stem cells are the accepted standard for the most promising research, I’m willing to accept that this is in fact the case.

    Do you believe that adult stem cells are as good as embryonic cells for this research? If so, why do you think scientists want to use embryonic cells?

    1. It’s not just adult stem cell results that are encouraging, it’s also that we can produce embryonic stem cells without killing embryos. So why are we killing embryos? But adult cells are also being used with great success. Google “adult stem cell results” and you’ll see some examples. Results with embryonic stem cells so far are a bit less impressive.

      Your question about using the approach with the lowest cost-benefit ratio is a good one. Why would we be discarding proven technology? With the results already being achieved, what is the agenda here? It strikes me as either political posturing or else something more sinister.

  4. mgarelick

    “when they have the power to use tax dollars to pursue that research, they force me to fund activities that I find morally reprehensible. ”

    This is an old problem, and I’m wondering what you think should be done about it. The US Supreme Court has said, essentially, that there is no “taxpayer standing” to object to particular expenditures by the government. Basically, everyone’s tax money goes into a pot, gets mixed up, and then gets ladled out for the various things government spends money on. The point is that no one can say that it is their particular dollar that is going in to the pocket of an embryo-destroying scientist.

    So it has to be a political matter. If you don’t like what the government is spending money on, you vote for the other guys. Now, suppose that we did have a “moral objection” mechanism to keep you from funding something you find objectionable. How objectionable should something be before the government has to accomodate the objection?

    And finally, I will lurch to another aspect of the topic: do you really hold embryos in the same esteem as people who are walking around and breathing (or, as is frequently the case in the conflict at issue, not walking around and having difficulty breathing)? If you do, how do you feel about the epidemic of miscarriage? Do you know what percentage of embryos end as miscarriages? Do you think we should devote as many medical resources to saving these lives as we would to fight any disease that killed a similar percentage of an age group?

    1. I think that we in the blogosphere need to call out anyone who does this the way Obama did it. He called it science, but the question of whether to pursue the research is a profoundly moral question, and he knew it.

      And this is one of the prime reasons why I like the conservative approach better. Liberals think they know better how to spend our charitable dollars than we do, or they don’t particularly care that we disagree. Conservatives look for ways to allow people to donate to causes they believe in without supporting ones they don’t.

      Hold them in esteem? What I hold in esteem is the sanctity of all human life, and can find no justification in killing you to save my life. And that’s the choice we make. There are places in the world today where female babies are killed, because the government, in the pursuit of some bizarre concept, decreed that it should be so. Women were and are being sterilized against their will. And sick and dying people are helped along in the process, because their care costs to much, or because their lives matter less than others. And in the U.S. alone, we have killed 52,000,000 babies prior to their 6-inch trip down the birth canal, because they were deemed either not human or we just didn’t place enough value on their lives to make them matter.

  5. mgarelick

    “And this is one of the prime reasons why I like the conservative approach better. Liberals think they know better how to spend our charitable dollars than we do, or they don’t particularly care that we disagree. Conservatives look for ways to allow people to donate to causes they believe in without supporting ones they don’t.”

    Do you think that the government should get out of the business of financing health research?

    1. Good questions! I’ll briefly try to respond to all three comments here. First, when you ask “Do you think that the government should get out of the business of financing health research?”, my direct answer is no. However, much, much more effort should go into finding ways to determine which projects are worthy of funding, and much, much more public debate over the issues involved. I realize full well that I’m spitting into the wind here, since we are so far from that.

      It sounds like you are saying either that (1) there is no difference, morally speaking, between a human embryo of 50-150 undifferentiated cells and a fully developed human person with consciousness and will, or that (2) there is no principled way of identifying the point of development at which a being acquires a right to life, and therefore we must act as if an embryo should have a claim on our consideration equal to any human with a birthday. In either case, my point, which I don’t think you addressed, is that these positions have implications for public policy that need to be acknowledged and either affirmed or denied if they are to be taken seriously.

      That’s well stated, and I agree with the idea that the ideas do need further public discourse and engagement.

      It’s not so much that I see no difference. It’s that killing any human being is wrong on some level. I assume you know that. Yet you are willing to justify killing certain people because they are less valuable than ones capable of fighting back when you try to kill them? I submit that on some level you see that as wrong too, but are willing to go along with the idea that it’s better to keep one person from living if it will keep another from dying. But what if we were to concentrate our efforts on finding ways to preserve both lives? Check this video out. It highlights the relatively unknown option of embryo adoption. It’s a way to not only keep from killing those left-over embryos from IVF, but it shows very dramatic evidence that the embryos are actually human beings worth protecting and defending.

      The abortion analogy is a laughable perturbation, IMHO. It presupposes that the woman did nothing more to contribute to the unwanted pregnancy than the guy with the concert violinist did. Horsefeathers! 99% or more of all unwanted pregnancies can be prevented by simply confining sexual activity to situations where pregnancy is a desired outcome. We in our society don’t want to hear that, because we want our sexual gratification without the unpleasant side effects, and we are willing to kill innocents to get it. But now we can see an alternative that would allow the woman to not have to carry the baby and endure the pregnancy, yet avoid the horror of murdering her unborn child. Would it not be possible to develop a procedure to remove the embryo and preserve it for a loving adoptive couple? Brave new world, yes, but one I could live with.

      In vitro fertilization has other moral issues, but the one I am most concerned about is the practice of destroying the left-over embryos. But, as I’ve said, now there’s a solution for that.

      These are hard issues, and you have put them well. I’m not an expert on any of them, and there are no doubt aspects that I do not fully understand, but I deeply appreciate the chance to discuss them with someone as thoughtful as you, and the fact that you pose these hard questions in a non-combative tone. I hope we can continue the dialogue!

  6. mgarelick

    Concerning this paragraph from your 1:41 pm, from which I quote only the first and last few words for purposes of identification: “Hold them in esteem? What I hold … make them matter.”

    It sounds like you are saying either that (1) there is no difference, morally speaking, between a human embryo of 50-150 undifferentiated cells and a fully developed human person with consciousness and will, or that (2) there is no principled way of identifying the point of development at which a being acquires a right to life, and therefore we must act as if an embryo should have a claim on our consideration equal to any human with a birthday. In either case, my point, which I don’t think you addressed, is that these positions have implications for public policy that need to be acknowledged and either affirmed or denied if they are to be taken seriously.

    Regarding abortion, have you ever encountered the “waking up with a concert violinist connected to your kidney” argument (originated by Judith Jarvis Thomson, but discussed by many other philosophers; a simple presentation appears at philrsss.anu.edu.au/~dstoljar/onlinepapers/Thomson.pdf)? Essentially, it shows by analogy that even if we concede that a fetus is 100% human with the same right to life of any post-birth human, a woman need not consent to continuing a pregnancy (and in fact it may be immoral to require it).

    Generally speaking, it seems that you want a set of moral rules that will produce the correct result when applied to any situation, and I think, based on 40 years of thinking and reading, that it does not exist. Some problems are hard, and people of good will may disagree on them.

  7. mgarelick

    “For me, the question is more one of what we have to do in order to clone. We have to asexually create embryos (we have to create them by cloning) then we destroy them. Any reproductive technology that involves the destruction of human life is morally repugnant.”

    Hmm. So are you flatly opposed to in vitro fertilization? Or do you think that all embryos must be preserved forever? I would note that the majority (perhaps a large majority) of assisted fertilizations are unsuccessful; for that matter, a very large percentage of intentional pregnancies end in miscarriage. Is it “morally repugnant” to embark on a project which is very likely to result in loss of a human life, or does moral repugnance require the intentional destruction?

    Anyway, I’d still ike to know what you think about full-fledged cloning: creating a cloned embryo, implanting it and carrying it to term. No destruction of human life here — what do you think?

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