Stem Cell Debaterama, Part One: The Stakes

With the recent blockbuster breakthrough in stem cell research sparking up plenty of renewed bickering over the importance of embryonic stem cell research, I thought I’d devote a couple of posts to the controversy.

Let’s be honest. Both sides of this issue have long been coasting along on some pretty shady narratives.

The case on the pro-ESCR side comes out something like this: embryonic stem cells hold a unique and singular key to unlocking the power of cellular differentiation and thus cures for nearly every disease imaginable. By failing to fund research into these cells with tax dollars, humanity is completely throwing away that key (often throwing it quite literally down the drain, at least in the case of the large surplus of frozen embryos in fertility clinics).

On the other hand, the case on the anti-ESCR side comes out something like this: even if embryonic stem cell research wasn’t morally questionable, it has never shown much promise, and the use of these cells in real treatments faces all sorts of oft unmentioned practical hurdles. Given that ultimately everything we need to know might be available through research on adult stem cell lines, and given that treatments which use adult stem cells are already a successful reality, embryonic stem cell research is an exercise in bloody Mengelism: an abuse of human life made more heinous by its pointlessness.

Now obviously, these characterizations are near caricatures in their simplicity: many folks on both sides are more moderate and measured. But these are pretty much the joe-blow partisan’s view of things. And even those who have been measured and realistic have by and large still been willing to let folks on their “side” of the issue get away with playing to these distortions.

In hyping the importance of embryonic research, for instance, many Democratic politicians have deleted the scientific caveats and rushed the timetables of possible benefits into absurdity: sometimes even bizarrely insisting that the benefits and treatments already exist.

But there’s plenty of disingenuousness to go around.

It’s very true, for instance, that embryonic stem cells themselves are not likely to be the therapeutic basis for treatments. Things like immune rejection are regularly and rightly cited as reasons why adult stem cells are far more likely candidates as the raw material for real cures. (Of course, the fact that embryos themselves are unlikely to be the mass-produced ingredients for medical interventions also puts a real damper on the right’s scare-mongering future vision of super-humans feasting on helpless fetuses.) But this is, of course, all a big red herring.

That’s because the hope of embryonic stem cell research always has been and continues to be about unlocking a core biological mystery: how the different sets of genetic machinery in DNA can be unleashed. And, perhaps even more importantly, if and how we can make cells transition between one function and another without side-effects like cancer or all sorts of other mismatched cellular artifacts.

In other words, embryonic research is held to be promising because it can tell us once and for all what the hell is really going on: something that not even the converted lines of adult cells can fully provide. Indeed, the latest breakthrough, done by Japanese scientists outside of American restrictions, was not only based on knowledge gleaned from past embryonic research, but does and continues to rely on ongoing embryonic research to validate and advance the work. (For more on this, PZ Myers gives his usual hard-nosed summary view of the new discovery, it’s implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research.)

Embryonic stem cell research is best thought of as a repository of clues: an entire crime scene in a complex case. We may well be able to solve the mystery without these clues, but we would be severely hampering our own efforts by not exploring them.

So the real bottom line is this: did and does placing funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research hurt scientific discovery and postpone potential treatments?

Yes. Unquestionably yes, and unquestionably we can count that cost in increasing human death and suffering in the interim.

However, did and do the restrictions George Bush placed on government funding really prevent those cures, shut down those avenues of science entirely, or even substantially postpone them (on the order of decades instead of years)?

No. Unquestionably no. What those restrictions did and continue to do is handicap, but only handicap, one of the world’s largest engines of biological research: American labs, most of which in some way rely upon government funds. But this cost is clearly measurable and finite, and though it may well harm the prestige of American bio-med in the long run, other countries and funding methods will prevail regardless.

So what’s the cost? No one can be sure. As James Thomson, an American biologist involved in the discovery of embryonic stem cells guages it: “My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years.” Seems as good an estimate as any, so let’s run with it.

What many on the anti-ESCR side will not admit is that four or five years is a real cost. That four or five years may well ultimately work out to an extra four or five period of death and suffering sometime in the far future, as an entire cohort of patients miss out on the first wave of treatments and so on.

What the pro-side won’t admit, however, is that this is not an infinite or even all that large of a cost in the grand scale of human medicine.

Whether this particular cost was worth or not it all depends on your beliefs about whether or not embryos are morally valuable. If you, like me, think the claimed moral objections are without any merit, then the controversy was indeed a complete waste of humanity’s time: all cost, no benefit. If you’re not sure of the merit of the objections, or think other things like the value of political pluralism and compromise need to be weighed into the equation, you might decide that the benefit of slow and deliberate policymaking outweighs the costs. And of course, if you think embryos are tiny people and one should never kill someone for the benefit of another, then every single embryo saved is a victory.

With a realistic perspective of the costs and potential benefits we’re looking at, it’s those beliefs that make all the difference.

Now, obviously I’m wholeheartedly with the first view: I think the arguments for the moral rights of embryos are simply facetious. That these arguments rely upon a philosophically unsustainable essentialism. I even sort of wonder if those that believe embryos are important haven’t perhaps lamentably missed out on the whole point of morality. I’ll lay out this argument, as well as contend with Ramesh’s “Party of Death” book, in my next Stemcelleristic post.

For now, I’ve got Thanksgiving to finish consuming.

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3 Responses to Stem Cell Debaterama, Part One: The Stakes

  1. […] is what I mean about both sides of this debate coasting along on the falsehoods peddled by their fellows. Both sides whine about the dishonesty and spin of the other side, and they quietly sit by as their […]

  2. […] totally out of his gourd to claim that ESC cures already exist: I’m agreeing! As I wrote in my first Debaterama post, the stakes for embryonic stem cell research are finite, and actually not all that high in the long […]

  3. Thanks. Very interesting post.

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