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Stem-Cell Research Stymied

July 19th, 2006 by Jason · 8 Comments

Bush today vetoed a bill that had been passed by the House and Senate. The bill made available for research those embryos which had been created as part of in vitro fertilization (IVF), but which have no chance of being implanted in the mother and thus will be discarded. Stem cell research has always been controversial and this particular case is mired with ethical dilemas. Despite many misgivings, which I’ll discuss below, I’m compelled to think Bush made the wrong decision on this one.

For those who haven’t been following the issue, here are the basics: Twenty-five years ago a reproductive technology was forged called in vitro fertilization (IVF) that works by harvesting a bunch of ovaries from the mother (anywhere from 5 to 15) and then fertilizing each egg in the laboratory using sperm from the father. These eggs are allowed to grow to be five to eight days old, at which point they are frozen. At this point the blastocyst (it’s not technically an embryo until it’s a couple of weeks old) is roughly a 60 cell “ball” and consists of an inner mass of stem cells (which would become the fetus) surrounded by an outer layer of cells (which would become the placenta). Anywhere from from 2 to ?? blastocysts are then implanted at a time (at $12,000 a go there’s certainly some pressure to implant several at a time) into the mother in hopes that one (or more) will attach itself to the wall of the uterus and start growing. If none of the blastocysts take to the uterus another round is done. However, often after a couple of rounds the parents have the one or two children they want but they have yet to implant all of the blastocysts. The couple then has five options for what to do with these remaining blastocysts (implant all the rest, try and get someone to adopt them, donate them to science [not many clinics in America can currently accept them, though], keep them frozen indefinitely, or let them lapse [basically let them thaw]). It’s from this procedure that America winds up with a half of a million blastocysts resting in frozen test tubes.

What’s this got to do with stem cell research? The cells at the center of the blastocyst are like gold to many scientists because they are totipotent stem cells, meaning they have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. Thus, theoretically, you could grow a new heart or a new liver or antibodies to combat any number of diseases. This is all presuming, of course, that scientists can figure out how to control the genetic process of directing these cells, which is very complex. Science-fiction scenes of self-generating replacement body parts are still a thing of the distant (if not completely fictional) future. However, you can see the appeal. We would be moving from preventative and restorative medicine to regenerative medicine. That’s a huge leap. It would basically do for medicine what the computer did for technology.

Before getting too far along I should point out that there are proponents (and Bush is one of them) of doing stem cell research using adult stem cells (we all have them—that’s how a cut is able to heal itself). However, according to the NIH, “so far adult stem cells that could give rise to all cell and tissue types have not yet been found.” Plus, they are just a lot harder to identify and extract in their pure form. However, these type of cells do have one very big benefit: they are already adapted to your body. Meaning that even if we did manage to create a heart out of a blastocyst we would still have the problem of the body rejecting it (in the same way that a heart from a heart transplant can only function with a constant stream of rejection-inhibiting drugs), but a heart made from your own cells wouldn’t have that problem.

Well, that’s more history than I intended, but it is a complex issue. Let me cut to the chase and put down some thoughts on this most recent debate centering on using the blastocysts sitting frozen around the country for stem cell research. First, the reasons why I’m reluctant to use the stem cells from blastocysts:

  • As many have discovered, if not human life, they are at least potential human life. I’m still not sure how much stock I put in potentiality, but it’s at least a factor.

  • Who’s going to benefit from this technology? Most likely it will be the rich and insured for quite some time—and they’re the ones who already have one of the most advanced medical industries at their disposal. It’s certainly not going to be the 45 million uninsured we have in this nation. Why are we spending millions when we still haven’t figured out a system of basic health care for the least of these?

  • Not many people are asking a more basic question of “Why do we have 500,000 blastocysts sitting around?” Well, here’s at least part of the reason: reproductive technology is big money which means that fertility clinics compete for business. And how do you win customers? By promising results. You want a baby? Our clinic gives you the highest chance for getting pregnant! How do you get such a good rate? By harvesting enough eggs that the chances of one of those eggs taking goes way up. Meanwhile, you conveniently move the ethical dilemma of what to do with those extra blastocysts to the bottom of the page and make the decision sound as easy as deciding what you want for breakfast. No matter what happens with this bill legislation needs to be enacted that at least ensures potential parents are fully aware of the ethical quandry they are entering into (or, if not that, would churches please say something to their congregants?!).

  • As Lee points out, why should federal tax dollars be spent on something some people find morally objectionable? However, my guess is some people find nearly every aspect of America’s budget morally objectionable, be it war or the environment. So that’s a tough argument to make.

Given those hesitations, and they are serious hesitations, I still think Bush should have passed the bill for a few reasons:

  • We need some sort of laws governing stem-cell research in this country. Anything is better than nothing! At this point a privately funded stem-cell research firm (like we’re trying to set up in California) can do just about anything it wants because there are no laws governing what is ethical and what is not in this field. That means a private company could potentially do grossly inethical things at this point. A couple ideas off the top of my head: start exploiting financially strapped women in poor countries to have their eggs harvested or letting stem cells grow into mutative forms of human life.

  • I’m not convinced these blastocysts are mini-Americans. If you do think they are full human beings then proportionate action to such a conviction should be taken. By that I mean a belief that there are thousands of mini-people sitting in freezers should compel us to start doing everything we can to get them adopted, including giving up the idea of having children of our own. But like I said, my take is that an eight-day old bundle of human cells that is yet to be implanted in it’s mother is deserving of respect and dignity, but I’m not ready to say it’s a full human being. Bush has vetoed a bill that would have allowed these blastocysts to be used for the worthy goal of alleviating human suffering. Is letting them sit in suspended animation until the money runs out and we let them lapse really treating them with respect and dignity?

That last point is really the one that this argument hinges on for me. These blastocysts are potential humans and as such should be treated with dignity. If the only other option is for them to eventually thaw and die (which seems to be the case) then allowing the scientific community to work with them for the benefit of humanity seems like a decent solution to this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Tags: bioethics · theology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lee // Jul 20, 2006 at 6:46 am

    Jason, this is a great discussion and I wouldn’t want to pretend this isn’t a complicated issue, but the reason I oppose this is suggested by something you write:

    “ take is that an eight-day old bundle of human cells that is yet to be implanted in it’s mother is deserving of respect and dignity, but I’m not ready to say it’s a full human being. Bush has vetoed a bill that would have allowed these blastocysts to be used for the worthy goal of alleviating human suffering. Is letting them sit in suspended animation until the money runs out and we let them lapse really treating them with respect and dignity?”

    I think the key here is the idea of use. Even if you don’t want to accord full moral standing to a blatocyst, we’re still talking about an instrumentalization of human life. That, I think, is something we should be very wary of. In my view respecting life means we can’t treat it as a means to our ends. Funding ESCR would further instutionalize this instrumental view of life, IMO.

    I think you raise a very important question with respect to IVF. Is this something that we have accepted too uncritically? Christians especially, I would think, should question the idea that we each have a “right” to children, even if it means using elaborate technology costing thousands of dollars.

    Duke ethicist Amy Laura Hall has written some good stuff on this:

  • 2 Jason // Jul 20, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Lee, thanks for pointint to that article by Dr. Hall—it’s a compelling case for the other side of this debate. And with you (and Dr. Hall) I agree that the shape of this debate has been dramatically altered by the new “given” of these thousands of frozen blastocysts created by IVF. The church has too long been silent and lax on dealing with infertility and the new accompanying technologies. Now it’s twenty five years after the point and we’re starting to realize that, Houston, we have a problem…

    Anyhow, one of Dr. Hall’s main points, which you point out above, is that “Protestants have agreed that Christians should assume and hope that even incipient life is indeed life bound for blessing.” Which appears to preclude any sort of utilitarianism when it comes to dealing with these cells. However, to hope that every incipient life comes to full term is a good hope, but I also think our actions belie that hope and instead point to the fact that we recognize a difference between an eight day blastocyst and a 6 week old fetus. For example, even without IVF 25% of pregnancies end in a spontaneous miscarriage before 6 weeks. And yet we don’t hold times of mourning and fasting regularly for the plethora of lives that fail to be, without our even knowing it. If our actions are so disconsonant with what we believe then some realignment is needed. Perhaps we should have mourning periods or perhaps we need to recognize a difference between incipient life and tiny embryos.

    Of course, I know that doesn’t really get at the heart of your objection, which is utilitarianism. However, I think in our fallen world many of our actions come down to a sort of utilitarianism or crass “best choice among many bad choices.” Eating meat, for example, or war or even driving a car are all things where many argue the benefits outweight the costs. However, there is a difference with nascent human life, and I feel stretched thin between the two sides on this one.

    In addition there’s the feminist argument that Dr. Hall makes, and it’s probably the one I find most compelling. Who’s going to bemefit least, but suffer the most in this whole thing? Poor women whose eggs are harvested for quick cash by a money hungry biotechnology complex. That’s one I’ll have to ponder a bit more.

  • 3 Mr Nugget // Jul 21, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    Hi Jason,

    What is your criteria for full human being? Why does a blastocyst not meet your standard? I fear you are stepping on to a very slippery slope by attempting to establish levels of human beingness.

  • 4 isaac // Jul 22, 2006 at 5:41 am

    Jason, thanks for the provocative post. You always seem to have a better grasp on what sort of topics hook an audience (as you can see from my recent posts, I don’t have your ear toward popular culture).

    Anyhow, I don’t know too much about the science of all this technology. So your post gave me a window into that world. All I want to do is return to the table Lee’s point: “we’re talking about an instrumentalization of human life.” You seem to recongnize the issue when you talk about utilitarianism, but I don’t think you give it much consideration (you instead slide into ethical realism: “best choice among many bad choices”). It seems to me that the issues surrounding utilitarianism and realism are not the same. Realism makes ethics into the art of the possible. I don’t think that’s a good principle by which to think christianly about ethics (and I don’t think “idealism” is the only alternative either; I’m for an eschatological ethics that confesses Christ’s graceful presence which makes possible the impossible—so ethics is always about imagination). But all that is besides the point.

    So, to return to Lee’s concern about utilitarianism. The problem, as I see it, is that this technology fulfills the capitalist longing to capture all things in a logic of production. As Lee puts it, reproductive technologies and the associated sciences capitalize on “an instrumentalization of human life.” This seems like the point Amy Laura Hall makes in that article: “Endorsing ESCR means endorsing an elaborate, systematic, routine industry of embryo production and destruction, an industry not likely to limit itself to therapies for chronic disease.”

    In his essay on “Conception, Children, and the family” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Joseph Mangina sums up the issue nicely: “the larger issue is that of treating the body as a source of raw material, whether for reproductive or for research purposes”. It seems to me that this scientific community that may benefit from utilizing the frozen blatocysts is so inscribed by the logic of production that I don’t want them figuring out new ways to turn the human body into a raw material.

  • 5 Jason // Jul 26, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Isaac, thanks for the helpful comments. I think you’re right to point a way past “realism” and “utilitarianism.” What I wonder is what exactly an eschatological ethic looks like—specifically what does the good news of God’s coming Kingdom have to say about the blastocysts left in the freezers? To me it seems so unhopeful and unimaginative to just let them all lapse, but maybe you can imagine a better hope for them than either lapsing or being used for research?

    Also, the last quote you give (the larger issue is that of treating the body as a source of raw material, whether for reproductive or for research purposes) leaves me wondering if such a stance would be open to any sort of stem cell research. Obviously we don’t think all using of [human] “raw material” for the betterment of another is bad since heart transplants, bone marrow transplants, etc. all make use of human cells to help another. My guess is we don’t feel any compunction about that because we know those cells would never have the possibility to develop into a human life. So perhaps it does come down to Nugget’s idea that this whole thing hinges on whether a blastocyst is a human life. But I hestitate to delve into that debate because it seems so unbiblical—the Biblical authors had no idea of how reproduction works (in modern scientific terms, anyhow. They seem to basically have thought of it in agricultural terms, as seed and soil). It seems risky to decide an issue by asking a question (when does life begin?) that never entered the minds of the Biblical authors. I think you’re right, Isaac, we need more imaginative questions (and answers).

  • 6 isaac // Aug 11, 2006 at 4:16 am

    Jason, I’m not ignoring you. Just busy. Ok, an eschatological ethic. What I’m trying to say is that ethics is so often confined by what we think is possible. It looks at all the options and tries to figure out which one best fits. Maybe this is a helpful analogy. It’s like we’re in a room and face a problem. So we look around at the resources available in the room. Once we survey the stuff, then we figure out what we can do with the stuff and then we have a solution to the problem. But then there’s me and my eschatological ethics. I see the same problem. I see the same stuff in the room. But you begin to think I’m crazy when I pick up the chair and throw it through the window, then a fresh breeze blows through the room. That’s eschatological ethics: throwing chairs through windows, breaking open the room. Eschatological ethics looks for the “outside” to our situation and invites that impossible possibility to transfigure our options. The “outside” is God. But the wonder of it all is that God is actually inside the room. He walked in with Jesus. And now our job is to wait on the Holy Spirit (that fresh breeze) to reveal the mysterious ways of Jesus.

    Enough of this “ethics made fun with Isaac” nonsense. To Jason’s second question. I have fears about “treating the body as raw material” because the capitalism thrives on transforming everything into resources for an ever-expanding market. The body is now one more thing within the grasp of the metallic arms of the production machine called capitalism. This is what Fredric Jameson means when he identifies this moment/ideology called “postmodernism” with the logic of capitalism: “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” Or as Hardt and Negri (Empire, p. 272) repeat Jameson’s point: “Postmodernization is the economic process that emerges when mechanical and industrial technologies have expanded to invest the entire world, when the modernization process is complete…. Through the processes of modern technological transformation, all of nature has become capital, or at least has become subject to capital.” That’s my fear. This power is consuming everything. Maybe it’s no use to resist. But I still have a modicum of hope in bringing the machine to a screeching halt. Maybe. I just don’t have any of the answers to make it happen. I have no idea what to do with blastocysts. But I do know what I want to protect them (and us) from.

  • 7 Jason // Aug 11, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Isaac, that was very helpful, good stuff. I’m going to start thinking about how I can throw a chair through the window of this problem.

  • 8 Jillian // Sep 21, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I think it is wrong that bush vetoed the bill to help save other humans. But AI think it is wrong that cells our being frozen. I believe we should take them and use them as need not take them and freeze them. I also think anything thing that is going to be treated like that is wrong. I feel there is a different way to get steam cells just not that way.