The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 6 2004 12:34 AM

Monster Farming

The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

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Hurlbut stands his ground. He reels off a litany of biotech breakthroughs that were denounced as perversions in their time: blood transfusions, heart transplants, putting human genes into bacteria. He says we're already creating human-animal hybrids and are on the way to growing "whole organs or limbs." The crucial thing, he argues, is that such projects avoid "the moral ambiguity of the creation and destruction of full human embryos." What about the moral ambiguity of crippling a pre-embryonic cell so that it becomes a "creation" instead? Hurlbut is unmoved. "We're not trying to defend parts of things," he says.

If Hurlbut's proposal breaks the stem-cell impasse, this will be the reason: People who are deeply conservative about creating and destroying human embryos can be surprisingly liberal about creating and destroying anything outside that boundary. One of the council's hawks, Diana Schaub, calls the proposal "almost too good to be true." Another, Marry Ann Glendon, says it could be a historic turning point. Two others, Robert George and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, are sympathetic as long as the technique reliably deprives the resulting cell of "the active disposition for self-organization and self-directed development in the direction of human maturity."

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The only cautionary note among the conservatives comes from Schaub, who wonders whether we're "tampering with the organizing principle of life." Kass says he used to share that concern but has decided to set it aside, in part because it's "aesthetic," not moral. Kass, who once wrote an essay on "The Wisdom of Repugnance," seems to have decided that if lives can be saved by tampering with life's organizing principle, wisdom is the better part of repugnance.

I suspect the conservatives will get more than they bargained for. If Hurlbut's plan succeeds, it will, as promised, prevent the destruction of many human embryos. But it will also expose and weaken the fragile distinction between us and our parts. Tweak this gene or that, and a cell that would have become you becomes a weed, a monster, a multiplying mess. There, but for the grace of God, go you. And now that cell won't be at God's mercy. It will be at ours.

For Thursday's report from the bioethics council, click here. For Saturday's, click here.