Saturday, December 04, 2004

Stem-Cell Research

Jeremy Pierce has a post about a paralyzed Korean woman who has regained her ability to walk, thanks to spinal cord blood (not embryonic) stem cells. Jeremy says:
So does this vindicate the Kerry-Edwards proposal to expand government funding for embryonic stem cell research, which California has already now done with their own state funding? Well, look at the fine print. It turns out this wasn't from embryonic stem cells at all. These are cord blood stem cells. ... This is actually an important discovery for the pro-life argument against needing embryonic stem cells for this kind of thing. There's still greater potential for embryonic cells if the overcome the biggest obstacle to using them at all, which there's been no progress on, but cord blood stem cells do in fact work for this sort of thing, so I don't know how embryonic stem cell advocates can see this as anything more than a mixed result for them.
I heard about this story from Tony Perkins, at the Right-Wing Family Research Council. His response was, predictably, similar to Jeremy's:
In what will likely be a recurring theme, the pro-life community can say to supporters of embryonic stem cell research, we told you so. A South Korean woman paralyzed for twenty years is walking again after her spinal cord was treated with stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research can only dream about this type of result. The difference between the use of embryos and the use of umbilical cord blood is literally the difference between life and death, between cures and false hopes. The killing of human embryos for scientific research crosses an ethical line, but, as science proves, actual cures are to be found with stem cells obtained ethically. There is now walking evidence that there is no justification for destroying embryos for failed science, much less using taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research. Stem cells obtained from cord blood and other ethical sources should be regarded as the hope of the future, rather than science that kills human life for the sake of some researcher's curiosity. The scientific world and the public officials who subsidize their work with taxpayer money should take notice.
Jeremy is right, of course -- this news doesn't particularly vindicate those of us who support embroyonic stem cell research. But Perkins definitely goes too far when he says this constitutes an argument against embryonic stem cell research. Why should progress in one area count as an argument against doing research in another area? I don't feel like embryonic stem-cell research is in particular need of vindication at all; embroyonic stem cells *might* cure important things, or might just lead to useful -- or even merely interesting -- scientific advancement, and that by itself is a perfectly good reason to use them. I guess arguments like the one that Jeremy aptly observes doesn't apply here, which I don't particularly care about, might be important for a supporter of this research who believes that embroyos have moral worth, and that destroying them is, ceteris paribus, morally wrong. That person would need to justify destroying embroyos with good evidence that in the end, more good will come of it. But I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone endorse that combination of views.


  1. Is it my lack of sleep that makes me think these 'arguments' (sic) from 'pro life writers' (sic) are on par with 'Since chicken soup can stave off the common cold, we don't need to fund research on breast cancer'?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Clayton, I'm not the best control group, since I'm a little sleep-deprived myself, but it seems likely to me that lack of sleep is not the explanation for that seeming. Rather, I think the explanation has to do with the way that your seemings track truth.

  4. The pro-life argument has been this:

    1. Non-embryonic stem cells have been shown to have success (and this was the case before these examples).
    2. Embryonic stem cells have more problems with difficulties to overcome that we haven't yet solved.
    3. Many people have ethical problems with using embryonic stem cells.
    4. Therefore, we should pursue non-embryonic stem cells to see what we can accomplish with them and put off embryonic stem cells for now, at least any that would require destroying still-viable embryos.

    The principles you have to insert to make this a valid argument seem to me to be fairly plausible principles to guide public policy, such as wanting to respect the ethical objections of something like 40% of the population.

  5. Let's see...

    As for the first premise, it is justified by appeal to an example in which cord cells where used to treat someone who suffered from paralysis. This is only one of the areas in which research on embyonic stem cells showed some promise hence the implication that research on embryonic stem cells didn't serve some purpose not already served by some other technology is just completely unwarranted. As for the second premise, I'm not sure what you are getting at so I'll skip it. As for the third premise, if I had to choose between supporting medical research that scientists believe to hold some promise for treating all manner of nasty conditions and respecting the 'feelings' or 'opinions' of people who have thought little about this issue, I have to side with those who suffer from Parkinson's or who have a loved one who does.

    I guess I'm more likely to be dismissive than you are of public opinion about moral matters as I'd rarely use that as a consideration in an argument, but I should point out that people have very odd sorts of attitudes about the moral status of embryos. If you asked my students who are predominantly conservative Christians, I'd estimate that about 25% of them would say that embryos and fetuses have the same moral status and this group would for the most part say that fetuses and infants have the same moral status. However, when you ask them to consider various thought experiments, you get some interesting results. Kamm asks whether it is morally permissible to harvest an infant for parts to save the life of another infant and this group will be all say that this is clearly impermissible. Ask them whether it is morally permissible to harvest an embyro for parts to repair a damaged embryo that may then be used to implant in a woman and they almost all agree that this is permissible. Another case. I ask them what they would do if they were walking by a fertility clinic, saw that it was on fire, and had to decide between pulling one unconscious person to safety or pulling to safety a cooler filled with frozen embryos and of the nearly 300 students I've polled anonymously in class, not one has ever said that they would pull to cooler to safety. Now I have to ask myself whether I really believe that these individuals really believe that embryos can never be used as a means to some noble end or whether they are really the moral equivalent of a person and the data seems equivocal. So even if I cared about facts about public opinion (which I don't 'cause that's just the kind of guy I am), I suspect that there isn't nearly as much opposition to using embryos for research as you seem to think there is and that evidence to the contrary may have to do a lot with how the questions are put to people.