Bad Science, IVF, and Stem Cells

In an essay in this week's Time Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate.com argues that the question of whether to allow stem cell research--which most people think is complex--is actually quite simple.

Here's how he puts it:

A difficult issue is one in which you hold two or more conflicting values. Stem cells are not a difficult issue: either you think a microscopic embryo has the same human rights as you and I, or you don't.

That's the way the President's Council on Bioethics defines the issue as well, at least according to this piece on Salon.com

Kinsley goes beyond the Salon piece, though, by making a connection between stem cell research and the practices of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Most embryos created in IVF fail to develop, he says, and those leftover in the process end up in a fertility clinic freezer.

So prohibiting stem cell research doesn't really save those embryos, Kinsley argues.

Death or deep freeze is the fate of any embryo spared by the Bush policy from the indignity of contributing to medical progress.

I'm not sure if Kinsley's piece is brilliant or barbaric.

On one level, he has, in a few short words, cut to the chase of what is an emotionally charged (and complex) issue.

But then he does something disturbing--he starts talking about Nazis.

Some make the argument for stem cell research by saying "surplus embryos are doomed anyway," says Kinsley.

He says that argument is wrong: "But that logic would justify Nazi experiments on doomed Jews in the concentration camps."

The answer is simpler, according to Kinsley. The embryo isn't human--and therefore, we can do whatever we like with it.

But Kinsley has got his historical analogies wrong. Those who argue "the embryo is doomed anyway" are following the example of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

The Nazi's didn't say that Jews were going to die anyway, so let's experiment on them. They said, "The Jews are not human so we can experiment on them." It's the same rationale used to justify experiments on the mentally retarded or, in early America, to justify slavery. Black Africans weren't human, so it was acceptable to enslave them, to buy them and sell them like commodities.

Normally it is counterproductive and distasteful to start calling people Nazis in these kinds of discussions, but Kinsley in his essay--rather than condemning what the Nazis did--has ended up embracing the spirit of the Nazis in his argument.

I also found his description of the embryo -- just a few cells "too small to see without a microscope"--chilling.

It has no consciousness, no self-awareness, no ability to feel love or pain. The smallest insect is far more human in every respect except potential.

When he was born, my three-year-old son, Eli, had no consciousness, no self-awareness, and while he could feel pain, had no ability to feel love. (Does that make him just a bit more than a tiny insect--maybe past a fruit fly but not quite human?)

Since he can type his name -- eli -- and poke the keys on my computer while I'm trying to blog, my son has certainly passed on to being human.

But his life in his mother's womb is still not far enough in the past to make me forget what he once was--just a clump of cells, to small to see without a microscope. But everything that makes him Eli --his hair color, the blueprints for the vocal chords that give him his voice, the synapses of his brain--were there all the time, even from that first few days.

So maybe, stem cell research is simple after all.

But the questions raised in IVF--where embryos are created, discarded, deep-frozen and very often also develop into children--are the real complex ones.


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