I didn’t really say anything when scientists announced a potential new way to generate stem cell lines. The technique involves extracting one cell from a blastula, just as is done in normal in vitro fertilization for genetic testing, and then growing that one cell into a stem cell line, while the rest of the embryo could be allowed to develop normally, or get tossed in the incinerator if it isn’t used.
People thought it might represent some sort of way around the objections raised by religious groups. I never really thought so because they aren’t defining life in a way that’s scientifically divisible. They see the fertilized egg and all its products as living, and are a little fuzzy on whether an egg and sperm are morally equivalent to human life even before fertilization.
Fellow ScienceBlogger The Scientific Activist points out how this dynamic plays with the Southern Baptist Convention. Technical dodges just won’t resolve the issue. The solution isn’t to accommodate every Luddite, it’s to inform the public and build support for basic research. There is an ethical debate going on, one that centers on tricky issues of how to draw the line between life and non-life, and what it means for something to be human life.
Arguing about how to generate lines without engaging the ethical and moral issues head-on won’t be productive.
This is a problem in other areas. People’s objections to evolution aren’t driven by the scientific data, they are driven by a set of moral quandaries. You and I might not see those same issues the way they do, but understanding what bothers people keeps the debate from getting stuck.
Stem cell research opponents worry about two things. First, they worry about research that could blur the bright line they see between humans and all other life. The idea that human cells could be grown with genes from other organisms just squicks them on a deep level. Sure, humans might use insulin produced by other species, and are glad to have the products of transgenic organisms. But humans are special, and they want that distance. That’s where people start talking about chimeras and manimals in opposing stem cell research. It also connects to the rhetoric about “fetus farming.” Exactly what that is remains obscure to me, but it plays on fears that science will treat humans like animals.
The other, related, issue is that they see human life as a binary characteristic. There is life and there is non-life, with no grey in between. Just because actual practice differs, because we are destroying that one cell anyway, because a fertilized egg has obvious differences from a babe in arms, that doesn’t change those concerns.
Incidentally, these sorts of issues also crop up in evolution debates. Humans are special, and the radical egalitarianism of evolution, the idea that humans evolved by the same process and from the same stock as all of life, just rubs some people wrong. If humans aren’t special, then what – they wonder – makes us moral.
What that means is that people who work in stem cells or evolutionary biology, and doctors who deal in birth and death every day, need to be better about sharing their experiences. People made a comfortable shift from seeing death as occurring when the heart stops to measuring it by when the brain stops because scientists and doctors showed how that made sense. That shift made organ transplantation possible, since the heart has to be kept beating up to organ removal. The solution to the problem involved a shifting of definitions, but also a concerted effort to reshape opinions about what death (and life) means. The same shift is necessary to resolve the problems with stem cells. They new technique makes the conversation necessary, it doesn’t resolve the issue.