Grandma vs. a clump of cells.

Science, technology, and life.
May 17 2005 1:54 PM

The Pre-Life Movement

Grandma vs. a clump of cells.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Have you noticed that the abortion war is moving backward through pregnancy? The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, signed by President Bush in 2002, established personhood upon "complete expulsion or extraction" from the womb. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, enacted a year later, outlawed the abortion of a "partially delivered living fetus." Bush's bioethics council pushed the debate back beyond the dawn of pregnancy, proposing a moratorium on the creation and destruction of pre-implantation human embryos for biomedical research.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Now the frontier is advancing from pre-pregnancy to pre-life. Conservatives on the bioethics council are opposing biomedical research that might destroy "embryo-like" entities. They're pitting the lives of patients against something not quite human and not quite alive, for reasons they can't quite explain.

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In a new report, the council considers four ideas for getting stem cells without killing embryos. The boldest, Altered Nuclear Transfer, would create "biological artifacts" that couldn't become human embryos but could make human embryonic stem cells. Should we pursue this directly? No, says the council, because it "raises many serious ethical concerns."

What are those concerns? The council isn't sure. Pro-lifers used to say embryos were sacred because they were embryos, not blobs. But now some blobs sound too much like embryos. The council warns against the creation and exploitation of "human beginnings," "near-human artifacts," or "intermediate biological forms." Why should forms, beginnings, or artifacts take priority over patients? The council doesn't say.

According to the report, critics might see these artifacts as disorganized embryos. This is an oxymoron, but nevermind. The report wonders whether it's OK "to continue 'abusing' the embryo-like entity by suppressing the genes it needs for development." This begs the question, since only organisms have needs. The report posits an artifact that, for lack of a single gene, can't become an embryo. Would this differ from an embryo that had the gene but lost it? "A person's perception of the truth in this matter may depend on how easy it is to turn the genetic defect on or off," the council concludes. The easier the switch, "the more this proposal looks like interfering with the normal development of an embryo." Looks like? Perception? Depends? That's relativist talk.

I understand the council's gut reaction. Six months ago, when ANT was proposed, I said it was creepy. It's still creepy. But the council is supposed to get beyond gut reactions. In this case, it hasn't. At a hearing in March, council member Charles Krauthammer called ANT bizarre and repugnant. Council member Robert George went after him with a Socratic chain saw, pointing out that the product of ANT wouldn't be a creature. These are two of the smartest guys you'll meet. I figured Krauthammer would reconsider. But in the report, George says Krauthammer still "objects even if the sources of stem cells created can be shown truly to be nonembryonic." It's George who has backed off. "Because Dr. Krauthammer also objects (as I do) to the creation for destruction of true embryos," he writes, "I would not finally endorse altered nuclear transfer using human cells prior to engaging the argument with him more fully." What argument? Neither man lays out the case.

The council's best-known philosopher is probably Harvard's Michael Sandel. In the report, he rejects ANT because it would create a "nonviable, embryo-like being" that "would be wholly disposable." Why would we treat this thing—technically not a "being"—as disposable? Because it lacks "the capacity to develop into a human person," he writes. OK, that's a good reason to use it. And what are the reasons not to use it? They're "well-stated in the [report's] ethical analysis," says Sandel. But they aren't.

Maybe the council can explain why something one ingredient shy of becoming an embryo is sacred. But then it would have to explain why a cell one step shy of being transformed backward into an embryo is fair game. In the same report that faults ANT, the council examines an alternative called dedifferentiation, which would reprogram body cells to make them as versatile as the embryonic stem cells they came from. If the reprogramming went too far, the cells would go beyond pluripotency—the ability to make many tissues—to totipotency, the ability to make a whole organism.

A totipotent cell would be an embryo. Nevertheless, the council calls dedifferentiation "ethically unproblematic and acceptable for use in humans," as long as the resulting cells are "non-embryonic." Council member Michael Gazzaniga boggles  at this double standard. In a dissent attached to the report, he asks, "Winding the clock back on a developed somatic cell and [stopping] it at a critical point is supposed to be void of ethical issues while letting a cell grow forward to just before the same point as with [cloning] is not ethical?"

Clearly, the council hasn't thought this through. Do conservatives believe "near-human artifacts" are too precious to create and destroy for potentially life-saving research? If so, how near is near enough? "Once we start down the road of deliberately engineering artificial entities with some human properties, it is not obvious how bright ethical boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable can be drawn," the council warns. True. But the road goes both ways. Once pro-lifers start limiting stem-cell research in the name of artificial entities with some human properties, it's not obvious how the bright ethical boundary between embryos and entities can be preserved. Worship the bathwater, and you'll lose the baby.

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