Saturday, August 07, 2004

Review of Issues Regarding Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Part II

First, let me apologize to my (few though they may be) regular readers for the hiatus.  I've been tuning my Linux installation, getting it to work with my PDA and memory stick.  Still can't get the Via 6410 driver to work, so I'll have to limp along with 4 IDE devices for now.

It occurs to me that, perhaps, the technical difficulties involved in getting Linux to work are in some way similar to the technical hurdles that await stem cell researchers. I'll have to think about that some more. 

Anyway, on to the subject: human embryonic stem cell research.  This is turning into a big issue in the presidential election.  It appears that the Democratic Party is making an issue out of this.  From my reading of the headlines, I have the impression that the Republican Party would rather not argue this issue.  From the Dallas News (free registration required):

[...] GOP leaders on Capitol Hill acknowledge growing bipartisan support for overturning Mr. Bush's order but want to delay action until next year. With only 20 legislative days left on the 2004 calendar, action this year appears doubtful.

"It becomes a very political issue very quickly," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Those who favor expanded research are not sympathetic to election-year concerns.

"My constituents are sitting in wheelchairs and they do not understand politics, and they do not care," said Michael Manganiello, a senior vice president with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. [...]

Mark A. R.  Kleinman anticipated the significance of this issue in his recent post:

[...] Who's going to vote for Bush this year? Very roughly speaking, four groups: social conservatives, hawks, corporate opponents of litigation and regulation, and fans of the tax cut. (Obviously, the last two groups overlap considerably, but they're distinct interests.)

Many hawks, corporatistas, and tax-cut beneficiaries have aging parents, or are themselves aging. Moreover, many of them are devout believers in the promise of science and technology.

Lots of the social-conservative agenda makes the hawks and the rich guys nervous, or even nauseates them (some are gay; many have gay friends or family members), but that stuff is mostly shadow-boxing and they know it: the gay-bashing amendment isn't going to pass, for example, and there's no imminent threat that prosperous women will be denied access to abortion services.

But stem cell research is different: it really matters to the social conservatives because they consider it part of the abortion fight, and Bush's resulting policies really threaten both the material interests and the ideology of the other parts of his coalition. And given the extremely tenuous link between the anti-abortion side of the abortion issue as it grabs normal people and the use of spare embryos from fertility clinics -- embryos produced for other purposes and which will never in any case be brought to term -- in clinical research, no one whose vote would otherwise be up for grabs is likely to turn against Kerry because he supports stem-cell research.

Bush's straddle on the issue was a gamble that he could keep the social conservatives in line without too badly outraging the others. If it had been true that the cell lines he approved were adequate to the research task, or that adult stem cells could be made to substitute, he might have mostly gotten away with it. But neither seems to be the case. (Which isn't to say that RR Jr.'s gee-whiz exposition is right; the path from the laboratory to the clinic is a long, hard path.)

So, potentially, Bush is in a world of hurt. He can't easily welsch on the social conservatives, especially with Kerry and Edwards doing such a good job of making themselves culturally unthreatening. The point of the Ron Reagan speech, followed by the reference in the Kerry speech (followed, no doubt, by lots of other activity by the campaign and by the 527 committees) is to make that potential hurt actual.

How many voters whose families make more than $100,000 per year want to see Leon Kass exercising censorship over stem cell research? A small minority, I'd bet. And for many in the majority, it could be a voting issue, or at least a staying-home-instead-of-voting-for-Bush issue. (And of course that's true for some social conservatives as well: their political leadership may be united on the issue, but for ordinary folks blood is thicker than doctrine; ask Nancy Reagan, who has pointedly refused to speak at the Republican convention.) [...]

In order to win the presidential election in 2004, either candidate must get some votes from the other's traditional voting block.  Dr. Kleinman indicates that there are some social conservatives who might vote for Kerry, just because of the stem cell issue.  It turns out that fundamentalist Christians are not the only social conservatives paying attention, as illustrated by two recent articles in The Jewish Journal of Greater Loss Angeles(1  2).  The first quote here is from an editorial by Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief; the second is from Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer:

[...] I’ve come across a lot of anti-Bush sentiments among Jews of all sorts, but very little Kerry enthusiasm. Bush partisans tell me this phenomenon is further proof that, come November, Jews who usually vote Democrat will vote for the Republican president in numbers unseen since Ronald Reagan captured 39 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Because Jews are likely voters, that shift could make an important difference in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In an election that pollsters even now say is riding on 12 percent undecideds, a change in historic Jewish Democratic loyalties could be crucial. But is the shift itself likely to occur?

I say no. But I also say it may not be too late for Bush to change the one position that keeps Jewish like from turning into love.

Polls show that Jews are not so much moving from Democrat to Republican as they are migrating toward independent. Many of these Jews want to reward the president for his support for Israel and his decision to invade Iraq.

What’s wrong with this analysis is that it misses the one key issue that, for these potential new Bush supporters, is a deal breaker. Three words: stem cell research.

The president’s capitulation to the Christian right on this single issue will cost him dearly among conservative-leaning Jewish voters. I’ve spoken with numerous Jews who check the Bush box down the line on tax cuts, Iraq, Israel and leadership. They have no problem with his born-again Christian faith, even as he applies it to his anti-abortion stance or homosexual marriage. But squelching medical research on diseases that could threaten anyone and everyone they see not as faith, but folly. [..]

[...] While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

[...] Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people’s lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God’s realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God’s work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe." [...]

Dr. Dorff's statement, that "While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose?"  get to the heart of the second objection to human ESC research, out of the list of four that I mentioned in the first post  in this series: We should not do it, because it is an affront to human dignity.  Joe Carter, writing at the Evangelical Outpost, addresses this issue:

Dignity is defined as the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect. This definition is significant because it highlights the key differences between the two most dominant worldviews in our culture – a functionally atheistic materialism and the Judeo-Christian form of theism.

In the theistic view, human life has an inherent dignity. A generous and loving Creator not only provides our biological existence but retains this same gift for his own enjoyment. Human life, therefore, does not belong to us but to Him. Our purpose – to glorify and love our Creator – is not based on any particular state of our biological development. All life is intrinsically valuable because it is valued by our Creator. Dignity is not something that is earned, it is merely recognized.

In sharp contrast, the materialist narrative claims that human life only has a qualitative dignity. Humans are products of chance, created without purpose by an impersonal universe. Our existence is nothing but a fluke; our consciousness a cosmic accident. Since we have no personal Creator, the worth of the personal is determined by fiat – the worth of life is whatever we decide it shall be. Dignity, therefore, is not inherent to all human life but based on the existence of certain qualifying criteria.

 Is it true that, in the "theistic view," there always is a sharp dichotomy?  Apparently, Carter disagrees with Dorff and Alderstein.  Is human dignity really an intrinsic quality of diploid (post-conception) human cells?  Is there an objective test that can be applied to objects, that invariably distinguishes cells with dignity from those without dignity?  If such dignity is inherent in human embryonic cells, then is it also inherent in all human cells?  If so, does that mean that all research on human cells is undignified.  If so, all medical research -- not just human ERC research -- should be banned.  This argument does not seem reasonable.  Of course, human ERC research necessitates that the embryo be rendered non-viable; that is, by removing just one cell from an embryo, that embryo is rendered unsuitable for implantation.  It would seem, then, that the dignity argument does not lead to a valid objection to human ESC research, unless one also wants to ban all medical research.  The factor that distinguishes human ESC research from other medical research is the rendering of an embryo to a non-viable state. 

This illustrates the complexity of the debate regarding human ESC research.  There are many fine points, subtle dichotomies, and esoteric technical issues involved.  Therefore, it is a debate that is sufficiently complex that it is not going to be resolved before the election.  But it may well be a factor that determines the outcome of the election.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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***If such dignity is inherent in human embryonic cells, then is it also inherent in all human cells? If so, does that mean that all research on human cells is undignified. If so, all medical research -- not just human ERC research -- should be banned. ***

The issue isn't the dignity of the "cells" but the dignity of the "embryo." No one has a problem with the use of the cells for research. It is what it required --the destruction of an embyro -- to aquire the cells that is ethically problematic and contrary to the concept of dignity.
Oh, this post was written with a bad assumption: that any readers would be familiar alreasy with what I have posted before. Perhaps that is not the case.

In a prior post, I noted that the proscept of cloning, in theory, makes every diploid nucleated cell in the body a potential donor for a nucleus, in transfer to an egg cell. The significance of this is that nearly every cell has the potential to develop into a complete person.

Although no one has proven that this can be done, it is likely to be posible. If so, then the dignity argument would mean that all diploid nucleated human cells (i.e. not platelets, not germ cells) deserve the full array of inalienable rights.

Since many cells are designed to be disposable (skin cells, etc.) it would not be possible to safeguard them all.
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