BIO/SOC: Bioconservative look at stem cells

Date: Sat May 05 2001 - 05:39:19 MDT

[This op/ed piece is more clear about rejecting technological progress per se
than most. GB]

No matter how you slice it, it's cannibalism
Source: Report Newsmagazine - Alberta Edition
Publication date: 2001-04-16
Arrival time: 2001-05-04


In his book Remaking Eden, Princeton University molecular biologist Lee
Silver wonders what the future might look like when the world gets over its
nervousness about human genetic engineering. Like many science fiction
writers who have speculated about the social implications of the technology,
Prof. Silver predicts it will encourage the ancient human impulse to divide
society into classes. The genetically enhanced-"GenRich," he calls them-will
be smarter, stronger and wealthier than the "Naturals." Eventually they will
recognize each other as separate species, and develop a relationship similar
to that which exists between humans and apes today.

It is tempting to discount such ideas as mere fodder for the next Planet of
the Apes sequel, except the technology is not just speculative, it's real.
The only thing standing in the way of an elemental redesign of the human
species is our old moral and ethical qualms. And every day brings more
evidence that we are succumbing to the seductive power of perfectionism, the
omnipotent philosophy of our era.

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) is an organization
created by the federal government in 1998 and endowed this year with $360
million in public money to fund research aimed at keeping Canada competitive
in the global healthcare industry. On March 28 it released the report and
recommendations of a CIHR working group which spent the last several months
examining the latest scientific, legal and ethical developments related to
human stem cell research.

Stem cells are the closest thing yet to the fountain of youth. They are
uniquely capable of either reproducing themselves or developing into other,
specialized types of cells. Scientists believe they potentially hold the
power to regenerate blood, tissue, bones and organs. They are present in all
animals at all stages of development, including adulthood, but as with
almost every form of human biotech promising perfection, there's an ethical
catch: many scientists say that stem cells with the greatest regenerative
capacity are only found in the embryonic stage of development.

It is important to differentiate here between stem cell and fetal cell
research, which Celeste McGovern examined in chilling detail in the last
edition of this magazine. Though the science is comparable (and the ethics
just as murky), embryonic stem cells are "pluripotent," or endowed with the
capacity to develop into a wide range of other cells. Researchers believe
stem cells could be used to counter the effects of degenerative diseases
such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and arthritis, rebuild bones, cartilage and
the spinal cord, and regenerate internal organs, thus substituting for
transplantation. At the earliest stages of development, some stem cells may
be "totipotent," which means they could be used to create an entire
organism. Stem cells are typically harvested from embryos less than 14 days

Fetal cells are obtained from specific tissues taken from more mature
aborted fetuses. In their most notorious application, they have been taken
from the brains of aborted babies and injected into the brains of
Parkinson's sufferers. The results of these experiments have been ambiguous
and, as Ms. McGovern reported, occasionally nightmarish.

In our relativistic age, most people detect an ethical difference between
material taken from a microscopic ball of embryonic cells and brain cells
sucked from the skull of an aborted fetus. The authors of the CIHR stem cell
report recognize that the devolution of ethical standards is an incremental
business and position their recommendations accordingly. They urge expansion
and public funding of stem cell research, but with several conditions
attached. Stem cells are only to be obtained from discarded embryos at
fertility clinics, and only with their "parents" consent. No one should
create embryos in vitro specifically for stem cell experimentation. Nor
should stem cells be used to create or contribute to human embryos. And
there should be no transgenic experimentation involving human stem cells and
animal embryos, or vice versa.

It is hard to see the ethical distinction between experiments on "discarded"
embryos and embryos concocted in a test tube specifically for research. The
CIHR report stickhandles around the question by noting that some people
think all embryos are potential persons and thus deserving of protection,
while others with spare embryos sitting in a fertility clinic freezer might
wish to donate some of them to medical research. The implied difference
relates to ownership: the fate of the embryo is in the hands of the people
who supplied the egg and sperm. But this is an eminently bendable rule. If
some civic- minded souls choose to donate eggs and sperm to a lab, surely
ownership passes to the clinic, or some NASDAQ-traded biotech firm that
sells stem cells for US$5,000 per cluster. (That is the reported price two
Canadian researchers paid an American stem cell supplier last year.)

The authors of the CIHR report say they hope their recommendations will
spark a rational public debate which ultimately leads to the creation of a
formal regulatory framework so that scientists know what they can or cannot
do in the field of stem cell research. Today they are working in a
regulatory void, much like fetal cell researchers, genetic engineers and the
shadowy characters experimenting with clones.

The demand for regulation has been around since the 1993 release of the
report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. So far the
federal Liberals have done nothing, which is to be expected from a
government that regards any manifestation of moral certainty with a mixture
of fear and contempt, but as governments elsewhere begin to either licence
or prohibit the various technologies, even the Grits will soon follow suit.
Thus it is a good time to point out, as loudly and often as possible, that
all of this stuff ultimately raises the same ethical dilemma: we are
cannibalizing ourselves in our desire for perfection and immortality. It
began with blood transfusions, moved to transplants and test-tube babies,
and after stem cell and fetal tissue treatments there will be clones. If we
don't soon get off the treadmill we may well become perfect-and therefore


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