Frankenstein's Minister

The future of technology.
Dec. 10 1998 3:30 AM

Frankenstein's Minister

Ethicists fiddle while biotechnology remakes human beings.

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Many years ago, the editor of this magazine, who was then the editor of the New Republic, coined an aphorism for political influence peddlers who defended their shady methods on the grounds that they didn't violate the law. The scandal, he observed, isn't what's illegal, but what's legal. Since then, politics has stagnated, science has exploded, and the art of moral rationalization has mutated to suit the new environment. In this world, the game is redesigning human beings, the stakes are ownership of the fountain of youth, and the scandal is what passes as "ethical."

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Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, convened a hearing to examine the moral implications of two recent experiments. Researchers funded by one company, Geron, testified that they had taken "stem cells" from human embryos and fetuses and had grown them into neurons, muscle cells, and other tissues. Meanwhile, the CEO of another company, Advanced Cell Technology, testified that by putting the nucleus of an adult human cell into a cow's gutted egg cell, his researchers had converted it into an embryonic human cell, which presumably could be manipulated in the same way. "As we learn to control the pathways that take stem cells down the road to neurons, blood vessels, and heart cells," Geron's Vice President Dr. Thomas Okarma testified, "we can immortalize them by telomerase gene transfer, so that sufficient quantities of these cells can be grown for transplant applications." Old folks' "degenerating organs" would be repaired "with young, healthy, and fully functional cells." And one of the first organs to be repaired in this way, the researchers promised, would be the brain.

All this sounds wonderful. We can cure diseases, immortalize cells, and theoretically live forever without the nasty old moral problem of "harvesting" fetuses. But the prospect of a human spare parts industry modeled on cooking, farming, and car repair raises a new moral problem. Human ingenuity--a grand synthesis of agriculture, manufacturing, and information technology--is dissolving human nature.

The ethicists who advise politicians and biotech firms can't comprehend the gravity of this step. Like lawyers, they dwell on details instead of the big picture. While taking care never to cross the line, they ignore anything short of crossing it, and they don't notice that the line is gradually receding. They look for moral problems in costs but never in benefits. And they quarrel over yesterday's issues while being overrun by tomorrow's.

For years, biotechnology ethics has been mired in the politics of abortion. Since federal law restricts research on fetal tissue and human embryos, the debate over stem cells has focused on whether they are embryos and, if not, whether scientists are killing embryos to get them. The token biotech critic at last week's hearing, Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, ignored the novel implications of the latest experiments, complaining instead that the researchers had destroyed embryos in the process. Conversely, pro-biotech witnesses argued that the stem cells in the experiments were only "pluripotent" (capable of forming many tissues), not "totipotent" (capable of forming an entire body), and therefore weren't organisms or embryos. "The issue that we're dealing with," said Harold Varmus, the director of the National Institutes of Health, "is complying with the law, knowing the legal definition of an organism."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

But this lawyerly parsing misses the larger moral challenge: The distinction between organisms and nonorganisms is collapsing. In embryonic development, totipotent cells (ostensibly organisms) divide into pluripotent cells (ostensibly nonorganisms), which in turn divide into cells that are "committed" to become specific tissues. The differences in time and in degree of versatility can be subtle. Moreover, the cow-egg experiment, like the previous cloning of a sheep, proved that the cycle is reversible: "Committed" adult cells can be restored to embryonic totipotency.

The ethicists who testified at the hearing were obtuse to this conundrum. The executive director of the National Bioethics Advisory Committee confessed that in the course of discussing the stem cell experiments, NBAC hadn't got around to the question of defining an organism. Doerflinger, the Catholic spokesman, was so intent on asserting the unique personhood of totipotent cells that he dismissed pluripotent cells, by contrast, as nonorganisms. Rather than confront the new moral questions raised by stem cell technologies, the witnesses praised them for abolishing the old moral questions. Banks of stem cells, Varmus observed, would reduce the need for "fetal donors." (The biotech executives' comments on "ethics" were even more diversionary. Click here for an example.)

The panel's discussion of the cow-egg experiment was equally shallow. Harkin quoted from a letter in which President Clinton had said he was "deeply troubled by this news of experiments involving the mingling of human and nonhuman species." The senators joined Michael West, the CEO who had supervised the experiment, in debunking this "misinformation" (the cow's genomic DNA was never mixed with the human DNA) and deriding the half-bovine, half-human monsters drawn by editorial cartoonists as "science fiction." West explained that he had used the cow egg only to "reprogram" the human cell, making it "young again" and restoring its ability to "become any cell type." The fake issue of mixing species thus obscured the genuine issue of "reprogramming."

The other overhyped controversy that distracts ethicists from the real action is cloning. The notion of replicating whole human beings transfixes biotech alarmists. This concern, like species mixing, is easily dispelled. "We are not cloning human beings," West testified at the hearing. Indeed, why manufacture whole people when there's more money in the parts business? The horror movie scenario--cloning your whole body, freezing the clone, and "harvesting" its liver and kidneys when you need them--diverts scrutiny from the real scenario: "banking" your stem cells and growing them into new organs, including brain tissue, a la carte.

This erosion of the distinction between whole humans and their parts--technicians will be able to tweak your cells either way--brings into question the moral privileges we attribute to whole humans, such as personhood and bodily integrity. But no one broached these questions at the hearing. Instead, as with abortion, the panelists praised the new techniques for solving the old questions. Doerflinger happily argued that by demonstrating other ways of deriving stem cells, the new experiments had proved that the cloning of whole embryos could be banned, as Catholic scholars have proposed, without disrupting biotech research.

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