Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bobby Fischer and Dick Cheney Compared
Both are Criminals; Only One is a Liar

This guy, James Taranto, is the author of the Best of the Web  page for the Wall Street Journal.  Today he included a blurb:

He Belongs in One, All Right
"Chess Great Fischer Seeks Asylum"--headline, Associated Press, July 21

I find this to be offensive, because it implies a negative value judgment about psychiatric hospitals and patients.  The implication is that because Mr. Fischer allegedly violated US law, he should be in a mental hospital.  No, people who are found guilty of crimes belong in a prison, not a hospital.  Yes, Fischer has said and done some awfully offensive things, and he may have broken the law.  Perhaps he's a bad man.  But don't joke about asylums.

Rant tangent aside, it seems odd that Mr.  Fischer would be of such interest to the US Dept. of Justice that they would extradite him from Japan.  His alleged crime:

Fischer is wanted in the United States for playing a rematch against Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992. Yugoslavia was under international sanctions at the time, and U.S. citizens were banned from doing business there.

Fischer won the match and more than $3 million in prize money.

He was caught in Japan, because he was trying to get on a plane to the Philippines, and his passport was not valid.

Compare this to another story about another case of an American doing business with a sanctioned country:

Dems decry Halliburton's Iran ties

Wed, Jul. 21, 2004

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Democrats who have been hammering away at Halliburton Co. and its former chief executive Dick Cheney about the company's work in Iraq added Iran to their list of complaints Tuesday.

In a telephone press conference, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he found it "unconscionable" that a Halliburton subsidiary appeared to be doing business with a country tied to terrorist activities at a time when Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive.

The press conference, organized by the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., came one day after Halliburton disclosed that a federal prosecutor had subpoenaed documents as part of an investigation on whether a Halliburton subsidiary violated anti-terror sanctions on Iran. In a filing with federal regulators Monday, Halliburton disclosed that the 3-year-old investigation had escalated from an inquiry by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Such cases are referred to Justice only when there is evidence "intentional or willful" violations have occurred, government officials said.

The Justice Department investigation relates to a subsidiary called Halliburton Products & Services Ltd., an oil field services company incorporated in the Cayman Islands. In a 2003 report, the company said the subsidiary "performs between $30 million and $40 million annually in oil field service work in Iran." [...]

That sounds bad.  But there's more:

July 22, 2004

Cheney Lobbied Congress to Ease Sanction Against Terrorist Countries While CEO of Halliburton


[...] It was Cheney who urged Congress in 1996 to ease sanctions against Iran, a country that's part of President Bush's axis of evil, so Halliburton could legitimately do business there.

During a trip to the Middle East in March 1996, Cheney told some U.S. businessmen that Congress should ease sanctions in Iran and Libya to foster better relationships with those countries.

[...] On the campaign trail, Cheney has been saying that Iran has ties to al-Qaeda and some of the 9-11 hijackers. But when Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton he wasn't concerned about that. But former President Bill Clinton was. The Clinton administration said U.S. companies conducting business in Iran may be inadvertently helping fund terrorist activities in that country.

In March 1995, Clinton signed an executive order that prohibited "new investments (in Iran) by U.S. persons, including commitment of funds or other assets." It also restricts U.S. companies from performing services "that would benefit the Iranian oil industry. Violation of the order can result in fines of as much as $500,000 for companies and up to 10 years in jail for individuals."

When Bush and Cheney were sworn into office in 2001 the administration decided it would not punish foreign oil and gas companies that invest in Iran or other countries that sponsor terrorism, including Syria and Libya.

The sanctions imposed on countries such as Iran and Libya before were blasted by Cheney before he became vice president, despite claims that those countries may have ties to terrorism.

[...] Halliburton first started doing business in Iran as early as 1995. According to a February 2001 report in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. laws have banned most American commerce with Iran. Halliburton Products &  Services Ltd. works behind an unmarked door on the ninth floor of a new north Tehran tower block. A brochure declares that the company was registered in 1975 in the Cayman Islands, is based in the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Dubai and is "non-American." But, like the sign over the receptionist's head, the brochure bears the Dallas company's name and red emblem, and offers services from Halliburton units around the world."

In the February 2001 report, the Journal quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying "a Halliburton office in Tehran would violate at least the spirit of American law." Moreover, a U.S. Treasury Department website detailing U.S. sanctions against bans almost all U.S. trade and investment with Iran, specifically in oil services. The Web site adds: "No U.S. person may approve or facilitate the entry into or performance of transactions or contracts with Iran by a foreign subsidiary of a U.S. firm that the U.S. person is precluded from performing directly. Similarly, no U.S. person may facilitate such transactions by unaffiliated foreign persons."

[...] Some of the other highlights while Cheney ran Halliburton:

In 1995, Halliburton paid a $1.2 million fine to the U.S. government and $2.61 million in civil penalties for violating a U.S. trade embargo by shipping oilfield equipment to Libya. Federal officials said some of the well servicing equipment sent to Libya by Halliburton between late 1987 and early 1990 could have been used in the development of nuclear weapons. President Reagan imposed the embargo against Libya in 1986 because of alleged links to international terrorism.

But the fact that Halliburton may have unwillingly helped Libya obtain a crucial component to build an atomic bomb only made Cheney push the Clinton administration harder to support trade with Libya and Iran. [...]

That sounds bad.  But there's more:

Treasury reconsiders legality of Halliburton's work in Iran
February 11, 2004
(The article originally appeared in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, but is no longer available there.  This copy was saved on Independent Media TV.)

[...] Halliburton has acknowledged its foreign subsidiaries have done millions of dollars of oil-field services work for Iran over the years, including in the late 1990s, when Cheney headed the company. When Cheney was CEO, he spoke out against unilateral trade sanctions while Halliburton lobbied Congress to change the law as it applied to Iran and other nations.

Cathy Gist, a Halliburton spokeswoman, said the "activities of Halliburton's subsidiaries in Iran are staffed and managed by non- U.S. personnel." She said the company "believes that the operations of its subsidiaries in Iran are in compliance with U.S. laws." 

[...] The CBS News program "60 Minutes" reported last month that a Halliburton subsidiary that deals with Iran, Halliburton Products and Services Ltd., was registered in the Cayman Islands but actually did no business from there. Instead, the network reported the subsidiary conducts its business from an office in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, that is shared with KBR, a division of the Texas-based parent company that is getting the bulk of the Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

Halliburton's own Web site shows the two corporate entities -- KBR and Halliburton Limited, share the same 10th-floor Dubai address, the same telephone number and the same fax machine number. [...]

Their defense is that Halliburton Limited is not a US company.  But apparently it is not sufficient for the subsidiary to be registered somewhere else:  "No U.S. person may approve or facilitate the entry into or performance of transactions or contracts with Iran by a foreign subsidiary of a U.S. firm that the U.S. person is precluded from performing directly. Similarly, no U.S. person may facilitate such transactions by unaffiliated foreign persons."  Halliburton Limited and KBR have the same phone and fax numbers, they are in the same office, and we are to believe that no one from KBR has facilitated work by Halliburton Limited? 

We get all bent out of shape because someone plays a chess game in Yugoslavia, but we elect a vice-president who does business in Iran?  Who's company was fined for violating Reagan's embargo against Libya?  Who sent equipment to Libya that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon?  Perhaps Cheney should make sure his passport is still valid.

On a related note, see this article  about Cheney's blatant, damn lies about Halliburton's dealings with Iraq before the 2003 war. 

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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Thinking Outside the Box

One of the thinks that makes schools of higher learning fun is when you learn that your much-despised ninth-grade teacher was dead wrong about something.  Not that I recommend going to medical school for that reason.  Too much work, not enough sleep.  But, you take your jollies where you can get them.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of walking around for six months smelling like formaldehyde -- a rite of passage courtesy of gross anatomy -- I provide a glimpse of one of the other sources of pleasure in higher learning: thinking outside the box.  In primary and secondary education, science is taught as a series of facts.  You memorize the facts, you get a good grade.  Yes, from time to time there is lip service for the goal of teaching students how to think, instead of what to think; but this is falling by the wayside, as the effect of enforced mediocrity (aka No Child Left Behind) is felt -- increasingly -- across our great land.  If students don't get good scores on standardized tests, the school could loose funding.  This, predictably, will lead to a bunch of students who all think alike:   the Emperor's New Clones. 

Rant tangents aside, reveling in the belief that blogging might be able to make up for the deficiencies in our educational system, let's take a look at some of those things that you might have been taught about biology, that are turning out to be wrong. 

The Cerebellum Coordinates Muscle Movements.  This is taught in high school biology.  It is accepted as fact.  It will be on the test.  But it is only partly true. 

Copyright © 2004 Cell Press.
Neuron, Vol 42, 973-982, 24 June 2004

Long-Term Synaptic Changes Induced in the Cerebellar Cortex by Fear Conditioning
Benedetto Sacchetti 1, Bibiana Scelfo 1, Filippo Tempia 2, and Piergiorgio Strata 1,3

1Rita Levi-Montalcini Center for Brain Repair, Department of Neuroscience, University of Turin, Corso Raffaello 30, I-10125 Turin, Italy
2Department of Internal Medicine, Section of Human Physiology, University of Perugia, Via del Giochetto, I-06126 Perugia, Italy
3Rehabilitation Hospital and Research Institute, Santa Lucia Foundation, Via Ardeatina 306, I-00179 Rome, Italy

To better understand learning mechanisms, one needs to study synaptic plasticity induced by behavioral training. Recently, it has been demonstrated that the cerebellum is involved in the consolidation of fear memory. Nevertheless, how the cerebellum contributes to emotional behavior is far from known. In cerebellar slices at 10 min and 24 hr following fear conditioning, we found a long-lasting potentiation of the synapse between parallel fibers and Purkinje cells in vermal lobules V-VI, but not in the climbing fiber synapses. The mechanism is postsynaptic, due to an increased AMPA response. In addition, in hotfoot mice with a primary deficiency of the parallel fiber to Purkinje cell synapse, cued (but not contextual) fear conditioning is affected. We propose that this synapse plays an important role in the learned fear and that its long-term potentiation may represent a contribution to the neural substrate of fear memory.

You need a subscription for the entire text, but I will give you the bottom line.  My personal theory is that nothing in the body serves only one function.  Ok, maybe the earlobe has only one function.  Everything else has at least two functions.  Dr. Sachetti et. al.  have demonstrated that the cerebellum is involved in fear conditioning, something previously thought to be seated in the amygdala.  Naturally, their work is really an extension of work does previously by others:

[...] A growing body of data suggests that the cerebellum is involved in fear behavior both in experimental animals and humans (Snider and Maiti, 1976; Heath et al., 1981; Supple et al., 1987, 1988; Supple and Leaton, 1990; Sebastiani et al., 1992; Supple and Kapp, 1993; Schmahmann and Sherman, 1998; Parvizi et al., 2001; Maschke et al., 2002; Sacchetti et al., 2002b). Stimulation of cerebellar vermis induces a complex behavioral pattern indicative of emotional arousal in animals (Snider and Maiti, 1976) and elicits psychotic symptoms in humans (Heath et al., 1981). Cerebellar pathologies have also been correlated with various emotional disorders such as depression and autism (Snider and Maiti, 1976; Heath et al., 1981; Schmahmann and Sherman, 1998; Parvizi et al., 2001). In addition, cerebellar dysfunction affects autonomic and behavioral conditioned fear responses (Supple et al., 1987, 1988; Supple and Leaton, 1990; Sebastiani et al., 1992; Supple and Kapp, 1993; Schmahmann and Sherman, 1998; Maschke et al., 2002; Sacchetti et al., 2002b). Nevertheless, how the cerebellum contributes to emotional spontaneous and learned behavior is not known. A recent report showed that the reversible inactivation of the cerebellar cortex abolishes the retention of fear conditioning (Sacchetti et al., 2002b). This effect was obtained by injecting tetrodotoxin after the acquisition session and performing the retention session when the tetrodotoxin reversible blockade was over.

[...] While for the vestibulo-ocular reflex and the eye blink conditioning there is a satisfactory model of operation, nothing is known about fear conditioning. Therefore, the aim of the present work is to identify possible long-term synaptic plasticity in the cerebellar cortex associated with emotional memory. [...]

Skip down to the conclusion:

[...] In this paper, we show that following fear conditioning, obtained by associating a sound with an electric shock, there is a long-term change in the PF-PC synapses and that a cerebellar dysfunction due to a primary impairment of these synapses does not prevent the acquisition, but impairs short- and long-term retention, of this learning paradigm.

[...] In the hotfoot  mice, we found no statistically significant difference in the spontaneous anxiety-related behavior. Therefore, the amnesic effects observed in these mice are likely not due to the interference with anxiety state. In addition, our data show that the cerebellum does not simply control the motor responses related to emotions. In fact, in the hotfoot mice, the freezing response is still present in the acquisition phase and in the context retention, but it is selectively abolished in the cued retention. Therefore, our experiments suggest that the cerebellum is a link between sensory stimulus (a sound), its emotional significance, and the correct motor behavior. This view is supported by our demonstration that in normal animals, persistent modifications of the PF-PC synapses occur in those cerebellar lobuli where there is a convergence of acoustic and nociceptive stimuli.

Therefore, the PF-PC synapses in the cerebellum do more that just coordinate the various movements involved in the fear response.  They are involved in the association between the emotional state and the conditioned behaviors.  Unfortunately, our school are turning out kids for whom learning is nothing more than a series of conditioned responses: see the word "cerebellum", check the box "balance and coordination."

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More Editorials on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Previously, I wrote about some of the editorials in the medical journal, The Lancet, pertaining to stem cell research.  Almost simultaneously, the New England Journal of Medicine  also published three editorials on the same subject.  Now I have learned (via Eye of the Storm) that a bill (H.R. 4812) has been introduced in the US House of Representatives that would promote stem cell research. 

Two of the editorials were written by members of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr. Sandel  and Dr. McHugh; the other was written by Dr. Spar, a professor at the Harvard Business School. 

Embryo Ethics — The Moral Logic of Stem-Cell Research
The question is whether the destruction of human embryos in stem-cell research amounts to the killing of human beings. Professor Michael J. Sandel on the stem-cell debate.
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Zygote and "Clonote" — The Ethical Use of Embryonic Stem Cells
The concern that shadows the free use of human stem cells derives from disquiet over their origins. Dr. Paul R. McHugh on the stem-cell debate.
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The Business of Stem Cells
Professor Debora Spar argues that the commercial consequences of U.S. policy are staggering. The future of stem-cell research is likely to be driven as much by markets as by science.
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Dr. Sandel is a professor of Government.  His editorial begins as follows:

At first glance, the case for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research seems too obvious to need defending. Why should the government refuse to support research that holds promise for the treatment and cure of devastating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injury? Critics of stem-cell research offer two main objections: some hold that despite its worthy ends, stem-cell research is wrong because it involves the destruction of human embryos; others worry that even if research on embryos is not wrong in itself, it will open the way to a slippery slope of dehumanizing practices, such as embryo farms, cloned babies, the use of fetuses for spare parts, and the commodification of human life.
Neither objection is ultimately persuasive, though each raises
questions that proponents of stem-cell research should take seriously. [...]

Dr. Sandel goes on to argue against the first point:

But this argument is flawed. The fact that every person began life as an embryo does not prove that embryos are persons. Consider an analogy: although every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees are different kinds of things. So are human embryos and human beings. Sentient creatures make claims on us that nonsentient ones do not; beings capable of experience and consciousness make higher claims still. Human life develops by degrees.

He points out that all human reproduction involves the loss of embryos.  In fact, it is estimated that half of all embryos created through traditional reproduction either fail to implant, or abort spontaneously. 

[...I]f the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions; alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined. [...]

He addresses the second point -- that of the potential for dehumanization -- as follows:

[...] Those who view embryos as persons often assume that the only alternative is to treat them with moral indifference. But one need not regard the embryo as a full human being in order to accord it a certain respect. To regard an embryo as a mere thing, open to any use we desire or devise, does, it seems to me, miss its significance as potential human life. Few would favor the wanton destruction of embryos or the use of embryos for the purpose of developing a new line of cosmetics. Personhood is not the only warrant for respect. For example, we consider it an act of disrespect when a hiker carves his initials in an ancient sequoia — not because we regard the sequoia as a person, but because we regard it as a natural wonder worthy of appreciation and awe. To respect the old-growth forest does not mean that no tree may ever be felled or harvested for human purposes. Respecting the forest may be consistent with using it. But the purposes should be weighty and appropriate to the wondrous nature of the thing. [...]

Even critics of stem-cell research hesitate to embrace the full implications of the embryo objection. President George W. Bush has prohibited federal funding for research on embryonic stem-cell lines derived after August 9, 2001, but has not sought to ban such research, nor has he called on scientists to desist from it. And as the stem-cell debate heats up in Congress, even outspoken opponents of embryo research have not mounted a national campaign to ban in vitro fertilization or to prohibit fertility clinics from creating and discarding excess embryos. This does not mean that their positions are unprincipled — only that their positions cannot rest on the principle that embryos are inviolable.

What else could justify restricting federal funding for stem-cell research? It might be the worry, mentioned above, that embryo research will lead down a slippery slope of exploitation and abuse. This objection raises legitimate concerns, but curtailing stem-cell research is the wrong way to address them. Congress can stave off the slippery slope by enacting sensible regulations, beginning with a simple ban on human reproductive cloning. Following the approach adopted by the United Kingdom, Congress might also require that research embryos not be allowed to develop beyond 14 days, restrict the commodification of embryos and gametes, and establish a stem-cell bank to prevent proprietary interests from monopolizing access to stem-cell lines. Regulations such as these could save us from slouching toward a brave new world as we seek to redeem the great biomedical promise of our time. 

I agree with Dr. Sandel's points.  The loss of human embryos is inevitable in human reproduction, and to ban any activity that could result in such loss would be a ban on all human reproduction.  The dehumanization argument is less clear-cut, since dehumanization is a subjective process: it occurs in the mind of the person who is perceiving the action under question.  Dr. Sandel's argument is one of proportionality.  He argues that we should respect human embryos, but not to the extent of sanctifying them. 

Dr. McHugh is a Professor of Psychiatry.  His editorial begins as follows:

Bioethics is a debate without rules about a future dimly apprehended — a debate that is ever in danger of slipping from judicious deliberations into secular sermons. I awoke to these facts soon after I had joined the President's Council on Bioethics, when we began to discuss embryonic stem cells. The discovery of pluripotential, infinitely self-replicating stem cells early in the 1980s had lit up a whole domain of cellular and developmental biology and suggested therapeutic approaches to chronic, debilitating, and incurable diseases such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes mellitus. But for some years, the U.S. government, knowing that harvesting the cells killed the embryos, would not fund research on stem cells that had been derived from human embryos.

On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush made a thoughtful speech in which he proposed regulations permitting federal funding for research using stem-cell lines from human embryos that had been killed before that date. The National Institutes of Health, proceeding under this compromise, has since made 15 to 20 human stem-cell lines available for federally supported research.

But as might have been expected, few serious participants in the debate were satisfied by this compromise. Most stem-cell specialists reject what they see as an arbitrary limit on their resources and programs — and, among other substantive objections, note that a boundary date for production eliminates the chance of improving the quality of stem cells.1 People who recognize a gift of individual human life in every embryo — an "end" in itself, not to be treated merely as a "means" — recoil at its destruction, no matter when or why it occurs. All the members of the President's Council on Bioethics — whose formation President Bush announced during that same August speech — developed our views on federal funding as we gathered information and exercised (vigorously, I can attest) our human talent for disagreement.

The concern that shadows the free use of human stem cells derives from disquiet over their origins. If a source other than embryos can provide pluripotential stem cells — and harvesting them requires no killing — then this shadow vanishes. Thus, we all celebrate the discovery of stem cells in umbilical-cord blood, bone marrow, and other tissues. [...]

Here, Dr. McHugh is referring to the fact that embryos are not the only source of stem cells.  This is a fact that often is forgotten in public debate on the stem cell issue.  Stem cells from adults, or from umbilical cord blood, do have the potential to be used to create significant medical advances.  However, researchers tell us that they are not the same and do not have the same potential.  This illustrates one of Dr. McHugh's main points:

Know the technical features through and through when working out the rightness or wrongness of a medical procedure. "God is in the details," noted the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Never has that truth echoed more loudly in the arena of biologic enterprise than it does now. [emphasis added]

Reading through some of the posts on the Blogosphere, it is apparent that some persons see the term "stem cell" and automatically equate all stem cell research with embryonic stem cell research.  This is an error that serious investigators and thoughtful moralists will not make. 

In addition to the distinction drawn between adult, umbilical, and embryonic stem cells, Dr. McHugh takes pains to draw a distinction between embryos derived from in-vitro  fertilization and those developed via somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).  SCNT is what is popularly called cloning.  His explanation of the process follows:

This process, better termed somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), carries the potential of producing a living replica (clone) of the donor of a somatic-cell nucleus. It involves calling into play the genetic material and mechanisms that are latent in all somatic-cell nuclei, allowing them, under certain conditions, to recapitulate embryonic development and produce stem cells.

Dr. McHugh is not opposed to use of SCNT for the production of cells, although he remains opposed to an attempt to clone an entire human.  In contrast, he views embryos as having only one rightful purpose: to produce babies.  This is a distinction that may surprise some people, since, in theory, an entity produced via SCNT has the potential to develop into a complete human.  This potential does not impress him, in the sense that he does not believe that the potential for a mass of cells to produce an entire human as worthy of sanctity:

[...] I argue that in vitro fertilization entails the begetting of a new human being right from its start as a zygote and that we should use it to produce babies rather than cells or tissues to be harvested for purposes dictated by other human beings. In contrast, SCNT is a biologic manufacturing process that we may use to produce cells but should not use to produce babies.

My distinction rests on the origin of cells in SCNT, not on the process's vaunted potential for producing a living replica (clone) of the donor, as with Dolly the sheep. My confidence in making origins rather than potential the crux of the argument rests first on a reductio ad absurdum: if one used the notion of "potential" to protect cells developed through SCNT because with further manipulation they might become a living clone, then every somatic cell would deserve some protection because it has the potential to follow the same path. [...]

What he means here is that all somatic cells -- all nucleated cells in the body except sperm and eggs -- could be used to grow a complete clone.  In theory, that is: no one has done so with humans.  Clearly, we cannot provide every cell with the same level of protection that we would a complete human.  Indeed, many of our cells are made to be disposable.  The lining of the digestive tract is one example.  Based upon this argument, Dr. McHugh comes out in support of SCNT technology, but with limitations to ensure that it is not used to produce anything other than cells:

I still support the call of the council's small majority for SCNT regulations that will ensure, among other things, that human ova are not wasted like cheap reagents, or women pressed into service in unsafe ovum-production lines. Also, because I see that my argument supporting SCNT as a source of cells might easily justify growing the blastocysts to more advanced stages so as to harvest organs or tissues, I support limiting the existence of the clonote to 14 days. When these regulations are in place, federal funding for biologic research on human stem cells derived through SCNT should proceed.

Thus, he does not support cloning per se, but he does support limited use of cloning technology. 

Dr. Spar is a Professor of Business.  He editorial begins as follows:

On February 12, 2004, a team of Korean scientists made global headlines. Using somatic-cell nuclear transfer (therapeutic cloning), they removed the nucleus of a human egg cell and replaced it with the genetic material from a single adult cell. They then stimulated the newly transformed egg cell and prompted it to begin dividing. Several days later, they had produced a line of human embryonic stem cells — the first ever created in a laboratory.

[...T]he Korean success was greeted with scientific delight and a flurry of accelerated research activity. In Canada, a parliamentary committee voted to legalize the use of excess embryos for stem-cell research. Sweden announced that it would support the cloning of embryos for therapeutic purposes, the United Kingdom authorized a private firm to begin deriving embryonic stem cells, and Singapore forged ahead with plans to spend $300 million on Biopolis, a cutting-edge science park focused on stem-cell technology.

In the United States, by contrast, recent policy has moved sharply in the opposite direction. Following an August 2001 announcement by President George W. Bush, federal funding for stem-cell research has been restricted to roughly 19 stem-cell lines — those created before the President's announcement from embryos donated after in vitro fertilization. No federal funds may be used to investigate other lines or to create new ones. Although federal law remains silent on the topic of therapeutic cloning, the President's Council on Bioethics has recommended a moratorium on the practice.

Dr. Spar goes on to summarize the controversy over cloning research, pointing out that while several advocacy groups clamor for greater federal support of such research, while others declare that the creation, followed by the destruction, of embryonic cells violates "the fundamental sanctity of life."  She explores this controversy:

The argument, therefore, is suspended between extremes. How do we balance existing lives against the purported rights of embryos and the fears of unnatural creation? Under what rules can we sanction using some forms of life to save others? At the moment, the moral debate seems destined to stalemate.

There is another lens through which to view the stem-cell controversy, however — a less obvious but also a less controversial one. And that is the lens of the market, a lens through which stem cells are seen not as life-or-death projects but rather as the basis for a set of highly promising but still unproven technologies. They are technologies that — like satellite television in the 1980s or Web browsers in the 1990s — seem to be standing on the cusp of history, eliciting a complicated mix of commercial interest and social concern. They are technologies, moreover, whose evolution will be shaped by business as well as science — by the markets they create, in other words, and the people who clamor for their goods.

Dr. Spar seems to believe that market forces will prevail, ultimately:

Currently, the market for stem cells is distinctly immature. Only 10 private firms in the United States were actively involved in embryonic stem-cell research in 2003, spending a total of just $70 million. Over time, however, this still-small business is likely to expand dramatically, following along the well-trod path of similar breakthrough technologies. The economics here are simple. Already, there is a widespread, deep-seated demand for the products that stem cells may eventually provide — treatments for diabetes, regenerative medicine, and customized therapies. As the science matures, there will also be firms with the capacity to supply these very same products. And once demand and supply exist together, they will naturally create a market. Governments can try to prohibit or constrain this market; they can push the market abroad or underground. But history suggests that such prohibitions will inevitably be short-lived, because if demand is intense enough and supply available, then would-be buyers and sellers will eventually constitute a market of their own, either by circumventing the law or by pushing the state to relax its restrictions.

Based upon this line of reasoning, she concludes:

Government restrictions cannot prevent this transition from occurring. They can, however, exert a powerful influence on how and where the stem-cell industry develops.

At first, it may seem that she is abandoning ethical principles in the service of pure pragmatism.  As is often the case, you have to get to the end of her essay to see her point:

To be sure, only the most ardent capitalist would endorse giving the market free reign over stem cells. The moral issues involved are simply too important, and the social debates too intense. At the same time, though, approaching stem-cell technologies purely from the viewpoint of science or ethics robs the debate of a critical dimension, because over the long run, stem cells — like books, radios, and birth-control pills — are likely to evolve into less contentious, more commercial forms.

[...] Venture capitalists will fund research into the most acceptable offshoots of stem-cell science, driving a market that runs in accordance with the wishes of society and not against them. Firms, in other words, will cluster not at the scary edges of scientific potential but, rather, where rules are transparent, and where states are essentially accepting. 

Dr. Spar's conclusion is consistent with that expressed in the editorial by Dr. Tauer in The Lancet,  discussed in a previous post  here.  That is, governments should act quickly to establish clear, if conservative, regulations.  The lack of clarity is an impediment to progress.  Although there may be a temptation in government circles to wait until a comprehensive set of guidelines can be developed, that is unlikely to be feasible.  As the announcement from South Korea demonstrates, science develops faster than governments can act.  Therefore, if government waits until the implications of a line of research are known fully, then tries to write comprehensive guidelines, the guidelines will be outdated by the time they are enacted.  The correct governmental approach, then, is to establish policies that clarify positions on the more fundamental aspects of a line of research, and allow the policies to evolve as the science progresses. 

This may seem distasteful, event intolerable, to moral absolutists.  But guidelines in bioethics are not fundamentally different from other areas of government regulation where human safety is involved. 

For example, look at airline regulations.  Not as glamorous as biotech, to be sure, but still a matter of life and death.  If a new aeronautical technology is developed, it is tested.  If it seems safe, the new technology is permitted.  If a plane crashes and people die, that is a serious matter.  Then we go back and revise the regulations.  Governments deal with this level of risk all the time.  Now we know that we should not route wiring through fuel tanks in airplanes.  If anyone built such a plane today, that would be unethical.  But no one is going out and clamoring for all airplanes to be grounded, claiming that some of them might have been built in a manner that later will be found to have been unethical. 

This is not a perfect analogy, but it illustrates the point: as we strive for higher levels of achievement, we cannot allow all of our worries about possible future ethical problems to block our progress completely.  Nor do we rush headlong into strange new worlds without prudence.  We seek to find an appropriate balance.  In doing so, we should heed Dr. McHugh's advice, and remember that we must know the technical details through and through, as we seek the appropriate balance. 

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