Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Stem Cell Research Is Not Murder

Okay, I am sufficiently annoyed at how ignorant and irrational this stem cell debate has been lately, that I am going to lay out some facts here for those who might feel underinformed.

1. Stem cells do not come from killing babies. Do you know how big a stem cell is? A blastocyst, which is to say an early embryo, is approximately the size of the period at the end of this sentence. That is all you need to start a stem cell line.

2. I have a hard time believing millions of Americans, as Bush put it, would really be offended by stem cell research if they really understood what it is and what it could do if we were allowed to pursue it.

I have a hard time believing- and maybe I'm being optimistic here- that there are really millions of Americans who believe that life begins when the sperm is engulfed by the egg. And yes, that is really what happens at conception. Kind of grisly when you picture it that way, huh?

I think there is probably only a number in the thousands, maybe the hundred thousands, of people who know enough about conception to understand what it reallly is and still choose to believe that this is a definition of life.

Do you realize that anywhere from 50-90% of human conceptions end at the 2-cell stage naturally, from failed cell division? Yes, this is the kind of thing I work on. And if you know anything about cell division, it makes sense that this insanely complicated process must fail quite frequently, and it's a good thing we don't try to save every defective cell that ever existed and turn it into an all-suffering, poor excuse for a human being.

3. More to the point, how many lives could be saved or improved through stem-cell therapies? Sure, it's going to be years down the line before these therapies are available for patients, and there will always be risk involved. But it would be a whole lot better than anything we have now. As I heard a bioethicist put it recently, any parent in the world would choose their child over a petri dish any day. If your kid/parent/best friend/spouse were sick, would you have a hard time choosing what to sacrifice? Sure, any time we crush bacterial cells for research, it's a sacrifice of a tiny microscopic life. But it's not a sin.

4. That said, and here is where I get fed up with Christian doctrine, I really think some of the older Indian philosophy makes more sense on this point. If you are so concerned with microscopic life forms - and that is what the embryo is at conception, microscopic - do you kill bugs? How many gnats and mosquitoes have you killed without a second thought? How many spiders? Or do you go out of your way to avoid killing bugs? Bacteria? Is taking an antibiotic going against God? How many people in this country follow religions that believe using antibiotics is a sin? Thousands? Millions? Are there really millions of people in this country who believe they will go to hell if they take penicillin?

More to the point, is an embryo really any better than a bug? Yeast? Bacteria? Let's be fair: if life counts at the single-cell level, then it shouldn't matter what kind of cell you are.

5. Stem cell research is not going to result in human cloning. At least, not in our lifetimes. I hate to break it you folks, but cloning cells and cloning animals are two totally different things. Even if stem cell research pans out in the next 20-30 years, human cloning won't even be an issue for a whole lot longer. Outlawing stem cell research now to prevent human cloning is a really good example of cutting off your nose to spite your face (and everyone who has to look at the bloody, gaping maw in the middle of your head).


At 1:46 AM, Blogger Lesley said...

Have you seen the google ads that go with this post? They're all for "anger management" products. Google obviously equates engaging in informed debate with a temper tantrum.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger James said...

Well, you feel passionate about this, as well you should, and I hope you keep trying to do constructive things to keep this issue alive and moving in the direction you're talking about, i.e. we must understand and be able to utilize stem cells.

That said, I'm surprised at how surprised you profess to be regarding the wall you see on this issue --- I mean, really, take account of the environment here. No one who's fully taking in the societal zeitgeist of late can't be taken at least somewhat aback regarding the ignorance and misplaced religiosity placed on any discussion of stem cells, to name but one thing. You have the Catholic Church against it, you have the president of the U.S. against it, and you're dealing with a population, fully 65% or better, who are certain that God has something to do with creation, and more of those than not would tie that "something" to a Biblical interpretation vice some amorphous "Maybe God got the process started some 4.5 billion years ago."

Bottom line, you have a tough line to hoe when you're going up against the collective forces rallied against this. That said, keep it up, I think it's worth the effort and you're totally right (I'm sure you'll sleep better tonight knowing that ...)

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Michael Stiber said...

To quote someone close to me, "I hope Bush gets a disease that might have been curable if stem cell research hadn't been stopped."

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Junniper said...

I love you right now for posting this. I have gotten so irritated with some people! Especially the people who are like, "would you kill your child to cure a disease?" Not.The.Same.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger DJ said...

You'd likely also be surprised at the number of people who believe things like:

The earth is on the order of 1000's of years old.

Humans are special in a way that can’t be explained via evolution.

Homosexuality is a choice independent of biological pre-dispositions.

There has never been a human on the moon.

Aliens (the kind from other planets) live among us.

Homeopathic medicine works better than placebo.

There are some who claim that we (scientists) are to blame for the above. Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” is a great read on the ways in which scientists have failed to educate the public in the importance of the scientific method as a means of verisimilitude.

The above said – I’m with ya :-).


At 11:55 AM, Blogger Kirsten said...

Living in a university environment myself, I rarely come in contact with anyone who is against stem cell reasearch. Then I watch or read the news, and I learn of the great masses in our country who will never trust science because of their faith in God, who will never listen to well documented arguments, who will never change their opinions because the world is black and white to them.

I appreciate your post, and your clarity on the issue. It's good to rant and get the frustration off of your chest (my husband gets the brunt of mine), but it unfortunately won't change anything except your own stress hormone levels.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Mike the Mad Biologist said...

Thank you for discussing the actual biology of what Tom DeLay et alia are getting all het up about...

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Bugs don't have souls. Really, religious thinking isn't so hard. Also, the creation of a soul in an embryo involves divine intervention, which means manipulating embryos creates a risk of poking, smushing or otherwise interfering with God while He's at work, which would be disrespectful. Also recall that death (for humans but not mosquitos, for which death is nonhomologous) is when the spiritual soul is divorced from the physical organism, and hence once God get's a soul going, to snuff it at any point is to commit murder, whether you do so pre- or post-natally, macro- or microscopically. Finally, because God said so to Moses, murder is wrong. Ergo no stem cell research. QED. Scientists can be so dense some times.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

NPR's Ira Flatow all but lost his composure today interviewing Bush's science advisor on stem cells, the guy is such a slippery slime ball.

At 5:15 AM, Blogger Tabor said...

In response to Murky Thoughts...Lets see...Civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq: 21795 to 24735? (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/) Actually I think these numbers are waaaay to low. I am so glad that "Christians" don't believe in murder and that is why "they" are against stem cell research.

At 5:40 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Sorry, tabor--I suffer from emoticon deficit disorder. I'm totally in support of stem cell research and I'm an enlightened person (i.e. atheist) as well. My first comment was sarcastic and in my second the person I'm calling a slime ball--in case that's ambiguous--is the president's science advisor on stem cells.

At 5:50 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:53 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Well, not really sarcasm. I was offering what I think would really be the perspective of many anti stem-cell evangelicals, though more starkly than I think they'd explicitly voice that perspective. I was trying to highlight the absurdly radical assumptions one has to contend with if one wants to argue stem cells with such folk. To me, such beliefs are comic, even while their consequences are dire.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Oh, and I think Ira's cool. My heart when out to him when the smoke came out of his ears.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger kstrna said...

It is scary how little knowledge people have regarding embryos and stem cell research not to mention what science is. Science is under attack in this country.

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Apesnake said...

dj said:
"scientists have failed to educate the public in the importance of the scientific method as a means of verisimilitude."

The only problem is that most people do not want to hear anything about science. The people who are capable of learning anything about what science has discovered (and you would be surprised just what proportion of humanity appears to be so fundamentally and profoundly mentally challenged and yet posses enough linguistic skills to have gone undiagnosed) come to a point where they discover that facts about reality challenge their beliefs and so they just tune out.

From then on everything from nature documentaries to science stories in the media (done by journalists who would rather be writing about sex or corruption) is all just propaganda. Following the attempts to get Bible myths taught in science classes over the last few decades should convince anyone that science based world views will not be widely adopted any time soon.

Tabor - Your tangential point about Iraq’s body count neglects any comparison of Saddam Hussein's Baathist body count over the past couple of decades. It ignores the fact that these deaths were incurred during a military action as opposed to the deliberate targeting of about 6000 civilians (as per an outside link on http://www.iraqbodycount.net) which those who wish to rule Iraq (foreign jihadis have inflicted. Your statement also offers no comparison between the number of civilian casualties that were incurred in past military efforts such as liberating Italy from fascism or Germany from Nazism. Do you have a web link where that information is displayed? Or are civilian deaths not murder if they are committed by a sovereign state? Please don't tell me that the US supported Saddam during the cold war because that is just more of a justification (if not an obligation) to unseat the putz.

If you are interested in news from Iraq that the media barely or never mentions try here: http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/2005/06/good-news-from-iraq-part-29.html

At 3:54 AM, Blogger Blue Collar Scientist said...

Ape-snake's comments are well taken. As he points out, even if you believe that killing a human is murder and ought not to be done on the grounds that God put a soul there and we shouldn't interfere, there are still conditions in which the killing of humans is justified, at least according to some standards. Ape-snake points out that accidentally killing people in an effort to derail the government of a genocidal madman would be one of those situations in which the edict against killing would be balanced by the greater good. Perhaps fighting the genocidal madman will result in less net death in the long run than letting him be. Perhaps a failure to forcibly oppose him will encourage other genocidal maniacs, who will feel more free to kill others who might have lived if the threat of military action were present. Clearly many people who oppose stem cell research on religious grounds have embraced these arguments, for many of them are in favor of killing combatants, and suffering the collateral cost of innocent civilian deaths, in order to put a stop to the genocide and terror. I can follow and even appreciate that argument.

Obviously those who oppose stem cell research admit that God's sanction against the killing of human beings can be suspended if certain other conditions are met. Great. Millions of people have diabetes, pancreatic disorders, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, and the like. It is already known that therapies developed from stem cell research can treat some of these disorders; the research gives every reason to believe that stem cell derived therapies will be able to treat a great many more. Millions of people are living terribly painful, tortured lives. Millions of people are dying unpleasant, lingering deaths. Millions of boys and girls are orphaned by these terrible diseases. The numbers who are suffering are far greater than the number who suffered under Saddam.

It is the burden of the pro-disease and pro-suffering lobby who stand in opposition to stem cell research and are against curing diseases to explain why in one situation, death (even of innocents) is justified, but in the other situation, it is categorically forbidden.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

stem cell research is just another example of man playing God and fucking with life to serve the interests of some genetically inferior people who should die.

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the saying in the bible goes man will one day out smart themselves.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know we can find a happy median with adult stem cell research. Who can draw the line where human life begins? Maybe you don't feel sympathy for something that doesn't resemble a human, but if you knew it could be someones child one day I am sure you'd think otherwise. I am just a kid, but even I can see how morally corrupted and ethically indifferent our society has become.

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, just an fyi, there has not be a single clinical usage for humans using embryonic stem cells. How can you say it's the ultimate savior when it hasn't been put to practice yet? Adult stem cells have already been greatly effective with over 70+ medical diseases and disorders being cured by them. Even though adult stem cells may have less plasticity, let's focus more time and effort on it to make everyone happy.

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

comparing embryos to bacteria and bugs?

that is sick.

At 12:52 AM, Blogger bella said...

i think that u can not compare 'bugs' to an embryo..
its like comparing a human to an antelope.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Cathy Davis said...

Stem cells are the life givers of human body. There utilization in the right way will lead to many new discoveries in medical sciences. Hope this must bring some cheer to the people suffering from deadly diseases.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Kelly Colby said...

This is an AMAZING article. When I first entered into stem cell research because my own child was sick, I realized how little people know about this or really much about science or our bodies in general. We are spoon fed information that is very dumbed and numbed down. I also learned that if someone takes a little initiative, they can learn quite a bit on their own.

I come from the philosophy that we are all connected. We couldn't live without the yeast or bugs. We may think we are superior in all ways, but the universe is set up that everything depends on the existence of everything else.

Our work is in adult stem cells from blood. It is my belief that there isn't any area of stem cell research that should be minimized because of lack of understanding. Stem cells needs to make it to the next level and become household for people. Our bodies and health will depend on it. Thank you for your very thought provoking words.

Kelly Colby


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