The Faustian journey is about to begin.
With the support of liberals, celebrities like Nancy Reagan, conservatives like Bill Frist and William Safire and New Jersey taxpayers, embryonic stem cell research (“ESCR”) will accelerate. When liberals and conservatives agree, take ten steps back and consider context.
Initially, taking cells from IVF-derived embryos and putting them into adults may not be efficacious for two basic reasons. First, the life force contained in embryos may be so vigorous that transplanted cells multiply too rapidly to be therapeutic; embryonic cells may intensify, not ameliorate, physical problems. Second, IVF-derived embryos have different DNA than that of prospective recipients. Thus, the prospect of rejection looms. (If IVF embryos don’t work, expect a new wave of support for “therapeutic cloning:” the placement of adult cells in enucleated eggs, likely purchased from impoverished women, so that genetic replicas can be created).
Beyond the practical lie largely ignored questions of ethics. While one must feel very sorry for those whose bodies are failing---especially those with spinal cord injuries-- one should also question whether the remotely possible ends: cures to these (largely old age) conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes, justify the means: cutting up human embryos.
In order to evaluate the morality of embryonic stem cell research, how science interacts with culture, and the future of biotech, generally, one should ask: where did they get all those frozen embryos that are about to be vivisected?
In IVF, many surplus embryos are manufactured, at the cost of millions of insurance-subsidized dollars, in a nation that does not provide even basic medical coverage for 44 million people. IVF is used principally by those who are infertile from STD or abortion scarring and/or who have waited until advanced reproductive ages to form lasting relationships and to attempt childbearing.
In turn, one might ask, why do so many Americans have STD and abortion scarring and/or wait until after 35 to marry? Mass reliance on birth control, including abortion, since the 1960s has created an experimental/disposable mindset about sexuality and a reluctance about commitment. It’s interesting, but sad, to hear parents of thirty year olds who favor abortion and birth control lament their child’s inability to find a committed mate in our “hookup” culture.
These developments have compromised Americans’ natural fertility. Characteristically, instead of re-examining, and perhaps modifying, their behavior, Americans have arrogantly transformed conception into a technological enterprise, delivered by a lucrative, lavishly supported industry.
When IVF began twenty-five years ago, who would have believed that it would soon generate hundreds of thousands of embryos that would be cut up for parts? Now that this has come to pass, why should anyone be so naVve to think there are any limits to the biotech enterprise, as long as there is money to be made and a prevailing ethos that nature can and should be subjugated to fulfill short term, individual desires? Technology cannot be viewed in isolation: just as cars have brought us collisions that cause death and disability (including spinal cord injuries), suburban sprawl, urban blight, traffic, pollution, weight gain, transient communities and a Middle Eastern funding source for terrorism, there’s an unavoidable, broader downside to commodifying life by manufacturing and destroying embryos.
Therefore, given the human harvest of embryos entailed by stem cell work, don’t be surprised by anything. Rather, expect to see, among other things, the mining of millions of eggs from impoverished women to serve as growth medium for therapeutically cloned embryos, the harvesting of organs from IVF’d or cloned fetuses, designed humanoids and a profoundly alienated, numbly self-centered culture. One corrupt process will continue to be stacked upon another. Developing an exit strategy for biotech will be even harder than developing one for Iraq.
American individualism and hubris have already brought us across the reproductive Rubicon. Justification for abandoning notions about the sacredness and unpredictability of life that formerly held societies together will be falsely found in the notion that each new step is not much of a departure from what came before, in the potential benefits that might be rendered to a minority and in the underlying, undemocratic principle that some lives are worth more than others.
The resolution of the embryonic stem cell controversy portends the nature of the resolution of all future bioethics controversies. It’s all about us-- or, rather, about some of us-- with no regard to context or consequence. Profit-driven scientists will continually try to create and extend lives, without considering the kind of world these lives will be lived in.