Brown and the Blight of British Bioethics

Back in 2006, I provided testimony before a committee of the Illinois state legislature on research involving embryo-destructive research and “therapeutic” cloning. At the time I was shocked by the complete unfamiliarity these legislators had with the basic concepts underlying the issue they were considering. The committee members were so scientifically illiterate that many did not understand the distinction between eggs (human ova) and embryos (a human being). The committee chairman even tried to argue that therapeutic cloning consisted of “injecting embryos into a patient’s spinal cord.”

Sadly, it isn’t only Chicago politicians who are ignorant of stem-cell science. The American Spectator has published an article I wrote about how in the UK, the Labour Party and Prime Minister Gordon Brown have gone out of their way to show just how ignorant they are about hybrids and stem cell research. An excerpt:

This week, Britain’s Labour Party made remarkable progress in securing the country’s reputation as the most scientifically illiterate and morally obtuse hamlet in the Western world. At the urging of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, both houses of Parliament defeated amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have outlawed the creation of “chimerical embryos.”

Chimeras (whether “cybrids” or “hybrids”) are human embryos that contain genetic material from other species. Chinese researchers began in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. Two years later scientists at Stanford University planned an experiment to create mice with human brains.

“To what end?” is a good question here. As James Sherley, from the Program in Regenerative Biology and Cancer, Boston, notes, “Huge volumes of…basic cellular and molecular biology must be ignored to justify [this kind of] research.”

Read the rest at The American Spectator.

Bailey and the Bioconservatives

The American Spectator has published an article I wrote on transhumanism, biotechnology, and Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey. An excerpt:

Bailey makes a similar sneaky acknowledgement using carefully selected language. “It is true that the proposed human animal cybrids would contain mostly human genes, but researchers have no intention of creating cow/human or rabbit/human babies,” he writes.

By combining the obscure technical term “cybrid” (an egg cell from an animal that contains the nucleus from a human cell) with the common, emotionally charged term “baby,” Bailey deftly obfuscates what is occurring. While the researchers are not creating cow/human babies (beings that have reached the infancy stage of development) they are creating cow/human embryos (beings that have reached the embryonic stage of development).

Denying the humanity of embryos is nothing new, of course, but the broad-based acceptance of certain biotechnologies has made such semantic evasion tactics essential.

Read the rest at The American Spectator.

The Price of Eggs:
Deflating the Hype of Theraputic Cloning

In January 2006, I provided testimony before the Human Services Committee of the Illinois General Assembly on the on public funding of research involving embryo-destructive research and “therapeutic” cloning. I want to quote a length from what I said to that skeptical group of Democrats to show how fast the hype over politicized science can change in the span of a year:

We believe that human cloning poses a grave danger not only to the dignity of the human embryo but to the women who provide the eggs needed for such research. Although it is often overlooked or ignored, women are exploited in the process of human cloning research.
For years the hype over therapeutic cloning has concealed what the scientific community has known for several years: cloning will never lead to a broad range of cures or treatments. The clinical benefits of cloning are years or decades away, and genetically specific treatments will be available to only a select few wealthy patients. Even if it can be perfected, therapeutic cloning will be medicine for millionaires.
As Australia’s Alan Trounson, a world expert on embryonic stem cells, told the science journal Nature Medicine, “so-called therapeutic cloning to my mind is a non-event”. As a way of creating cures, he observed, “it’s just not realistic.” In the same article an American expert, José Cibelli of Michigan State University predicted that “therapeutic cloning is going to be obsolete.”
Lost in the hype over “miracle cures” is the indisputable fact that the human cloning is simply an untenable method for treating diseases. The number of eggs needed for such purposes exceeds the supply by several orders of magnitude.

Continue reading The Price of Eggs:
Deflating the Hype of Theraputic Cloning

The Rorschach Test of ESCR

A bit of skin is all it took to transform one of the most controversial ethical issues of our time.
Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, working independently, are the first to show how embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human skin cells, without first creating or destroying human embryos. The reprogrammed cells, the scientists report, appear to behave very much like human embryonic stem cells but were called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” meaning cells that can change into many different types.
“By any means we test them they are the same as embryonic stem cells,” Dr. Thomson says.
For the past half decade, embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has been a hotly debated topic. Because of this I suspect that there will be four main–though potentially overlapping–groups that will react strongly to this story.
The first are those who care about the science. They will be awed by one of the most monumental discoveries of the decade. As Yuval Levin notes, this finding “will revolutionize cell biology, and get a lot of PhD level textbooks thrown in the garbage today.”
The second are those who believed the hype about ESCR leading to cures. They will initially be elated — and then dejected when they find that the real potential for ESCR is basic research and that any therapeutic uses are likely to come decades from now.
The third are those who have a financial stake in current ESCR research. They will attempt to downplay the significance of this finding. According to a recent report put out by the Rockefeller Institute, to date about $1.7 billion has poured into ESCR and SCNT from philanthropic sources. This doesn’t include the hundreds of millions granted annually by the states for cloning and ESCR experiments. There are too many people making money off embryo-destructive research to give it up without a fight.
The last two categories are comprised of people who were primarily concerned about the ethical implications. One group was honestly concerned about the moral issues surrounding ESCR and will be overjoyed that a solution to the problem has been found that has the potential to please all parties involved.
The last group is those who favor embryo-destructive research because it gives them an ethical excuse (i.e., compassion for the sick) for denying the inherent dignity of humans in the embryonic stage of life. I agree with Joseph Bottum, who says in First Things:

I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.

ESCR has always been as much of a Rorschach test as a field of medical research. Whether a tool for unlocking of scientific knowledge, a cure for an ailing family member, a deep reservoir for government funding, a struggle for human dignity, or a stalking-horse for abortion politics, people look as the issue and see what they want to see. We’ll all look at this finding and see something different. Hopefully, it will help us all see the issue a bit more clearly.

The Embryo Eaters:
A Bioethical Thought Experiment

[Note: Since I’m busy with The Washington Briefing this week, I thought I’d recycle this post from April 2005.]
The following thought experiment is used to explore some basic assumptions currently held in the field of bioethics. As with any such hypothetical scenario, a certain degree of liberty is taken with what is considered within the realm of possibility. Some people may complain that I have stretched the normal boundaries of the discussion in order to make a point.
I completely agree.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which many people consider it ethical to destroy “non-person humans” in order to use their parts for experiments in speculative medical science. When such views are so commonly accepted it’s difficult to present a test case that pushes the limits beyond our society’s absurd and twisted views on bioethics.


It begins with an old wives tale. After receiving a grant from a multi-national pharmaceutical company, a young French medical scientist begins a post-doctoral study of a peculiar practice conducted in Belgium. A guild of midwives has adapted the obscure practice of eating the placenta and used it as a cure for some forms of minor debilitating afflictions. The Belgian media reports on stories of miraculous recovery from arthritis by elderly citizens who eat a soup made with fresh placenta.
The young scientist is initially skeptical, believing a placebo effect is responsible for the “miraculous” results. But after conducting his own research the French doctor becomes convinced that further study is warranted. The public’s disgust and the medical community’s lukewarm reception of the claims, though, sours the pharmaceutical company on pursuing further research. Fortunately for the young physician, a Dutch billionaire who was cured of his own ailments decides to fund the inquiry.

Continue reading The Embryo Eaters:
A Bioethical Thought Experiment

Stem Cell Halfway Houses:
The Promise of AFS Research

In a remarkable medical breakthrough, scientists from Harvard and Wake Forest report that they have discovered a new source of stems cells that have the ability to create muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve, and liver cells in the laboratory. These newly discovered stem cells, which they have named amniotic fluid-derived stem (AFS) cells, may represent an intermediate stage–“halfway houses”–between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The research, which has been ongoing for the past seven years, was reported in yesterday’s Nature Biotechnology.
One of the primary advantages of the AFS cells is their ready availability. The cells can be harvested from backup amniotic fluid specimens obtained for amniocentesis or from “afterbirth,” the placenta and other membranes that are expelled after delivery. Anthony Atala, M.D., senior researcher and director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, says that a bank with 100,000 specimens theoretically could supply 99 percent of the U.S. population with perfect genetic matches for transplantation.
A number of factors make these cells preferable to embryonic stem cells (ESC), which have never been used for therapies. Their value could even potentially surpass adult stem cells, which are used in about seventy treatments and therapies. According to the report:

Continue reading Stem Cell Halfway Houses:
The Promise of AFS Research

Potential Dupes:
The Public’s Willful Ignorance about ESCR

Over at RedBlueChristian I made a comment about there being no empirical evidence that embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) will ever produce a cure for anything, much less a spinal cord injury. Andrew P. replied that I might be overstating the speculative nature of the field of research. In rebuttal he alluded to a John Hopkins study in which embryonic stem cells were used to aid in the recovery from paralysis in rats and adds.

This isn’t a guarantee that this therapy will every work in practice for humans for a given kind of injury or disease. But it certainly is empirical evidence of a (partial) cure, is it not?

Actually, it is not. Not only do such studies not provide empirical evidence for human cures but they rarely even provide empirical evidence for cures in rats. The most that can be said is that the empirical evidence supports the results of the experiment. Attempting to extrapolate from such meager animal studies to producing cures in humans is nothing more than a blind leap of faith.
Before any research using embryonic stem cells can reach the level of “empirical evidence of a (partial) cure” it has to overcome the currently insurmountable problem of tumor formation. As James Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, notes, the question “How soon could human embryonic stem cells be used for cures?” is pre-empted by the question “Could human embryonic stem cells ever be used for cures?”:

Continue reading Potential Dupes:
The Public’s Willful Ignorance about ESCR

Tricky Dickey:
Congress, Cowards, and Embryonic Stem Cell Research

This week the Senate is expected to approve legislation already passed by the House that will expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. If it passes, President Bush will veto the legislation, a move that should be praised by pro-lifers, fiscal conservatives, and anyone who values science and ethics.
If corporations asked the government to fund research into hydrogen-fueled cars by over-hyping their potential while denigrating the alternatives (i.e., electric cars), the watchdogs in the media would be writing Pulitzer-winning exposes. Yet embryonic stem cell research, which currently consists of bad science and even worse ethics, is given a pass. The hype and outright dishonesty surrounding the support of this research instead of adult stem cell research is scandalous — and has been abetted by the mainstream media. (Former Science Editor Tim Radford of the UK’s The Guardian even admitted at a recent conference that he and his fellow science journalists hype stem cell research to sell more newspapers.)
Since they can’t even cover the obvious story-behind-the-story, the media are even less likely to report on the Congressional hypocrisy of creating a law to circumvent one that they themselves have passed. Yet that is what the current legislation intends to do.
In 1996, former Arkansas congressman Jay Dickey attached an amendment to the Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill that prohibits the use of federal funds for research that destroys or seriously endangers human embryos. The Dickey Amendment, which has been reimplemented every year since ‘