Who gets credit for the falling abortion rate?

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 18 2008 7:55 AM

A Long Way, Baby

Who gets credit for the falling abortion rate?

(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

A company claims to have cloned human embryos from adult cells and grown them to a point at which stem cells could be harvested. Key breakthrough: Getting high-quality eggs fresh from the ovaries. Company's spins: 1) Next, we'll derive stem-cell lines from cloned embryos. 2) We can get plenty of eggs to make more lines. 3) We'll cure Alzheimer's! Media hype: "Few, if any, technical barriers may remain to the creation of cloned babies." Conservative reaction: Ban cloning! Skeptical reactions: 1) The company didn't derive any stem cells. 2) The last time somebody claimed to have cloned human embryos, it was a fraud. 3) The company didn't prove the cloning fully succeeded. 4) Its embryos don't look healthy. 5) We've already found other ways to make embryonic stem cells, so who needs cloning? Bonus report: The company's CEO cloned himself. Related: Human Nature's take on the  previous (fraudulent) report of human clones.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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A survey of providers indicates the U.S. abortion rate has fallen to a 30-year low. Data: 1) Since 1981, the abortion rate is down by one-third. 2) Since 1990, the annual tally is down by one-fourth. 3) Since 1983, the percentage of pregnancies that are aborted is down by one-fourth. 4) Drugs (RU-486), rather than surgery, now account for 13 percent of abortions. Pro-life spins: 1) The decline shows our campaign to change hearts and minds is working! 2) But, er, we still need restrictions. Pro-choice spins: 1) The decline shows our campaign for birth control and sex education is working! 2) But, er, we don't like the decline if it's due to restrictions. Challenge to pro-lifers: Answer the pro-choice argument that the biggest abortion reductions are in pro-choice states. (Related columns: Abortion and ultrasound; abortion regulation; fetal pain legislation; spousal notification laws; partial-birth abortion bans; abortion reduction through birth control.)

Baseball players may be feigning attention deficit disorder to get stimulants. Major League Baseball bans amphetamines, but players can get Ritalin or Adderall by claiming a "therapeutic-use exemption" to treat ADD. The drugs "mask pain and increase energy and reaction time." Evidence of feigning: 1) Player ADD claims jumped from 28 to 103 in a year. 2) This makes the putative rate of ADD much higher in baseball than in amateur athletics or the general population. Excuses: 1) ADD claims have also radically increased in the general population. 2) Consequently, the rate in baseball isn't much higher than the new norm. Cynical view: Both numbers are inflated. Next ruses: 1) Some players are claiming "androgen deficiency," which might entitle them to steroids. 2) Some are switching from amphetamines to caffeinated beverages. (Related: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.)

A monkey's brain controlled a robot's walk. By connecting the brain to a computer through electrodes, scientists decoded the monkey's walking signals and programmed a robot to respond accordingly. Results: 1) The computer learned "to predict with 90 percent accuracy all permutations of [the monkey's] leg movements three to four seconds before the movement takes place." 2) A single hour of practice with visual feedback trained the monkey's brain to organize its neurons so that some controlled its own walk while others controlled the robot's. 3) The brain "started to absorb the representation of the robot's legs" as though they were its own. Next projects: 1) Training humans to "operate an exoskeleton with their thoughts." 2) Training monkeys' brains to "feel" the movements of robotic legs. 3) Combining these technologies in fully functional artificial limbs. (Related: The arrival of mind-reading machines.)

We're "probably already eating meat from the offspring of clones." Evidence: 1) One cattleman says, "We're selling semen out of cloned animals right now to farmers, ranchers. They're producing cattle that are going into the food chain, and have." 2) "Executives from the nation's major cattle cloning companies conceded … they have not been able to keep track of how many offspring of clones have entered the food supply." 3)  The vice president of a cloning company says, "It's inevitable that there are large numbers of clone progeny in the food supply." 4) Another company served cloned beef to its employees and "sent its clients clone-meat summer sausage as a gift." Business logic: Ranchers have already paid good money for clones, and inspectors can't tell which meat came from cloned offspring, so incentives have driven the meat into the market. Consumer activists' view: Ban or label this meat before people unwittingly eat it! Livestock cloners' view: Relax; you've already eaten it. (Related: Human Nature's defense of cloned food.)

Chewing gum caused chronic diarrhea and 20 percent weight loss in two patients. Culprit: Sorbitol, a common sugar-free sweetener that, unknown to most people, is a laxative. Doctors warn that even without the sweetener, gum "might also influence stool frequency by stimulating saliva, gastric juices, and intestinal juices and by increasing intestinal motility." Skeptical view: These patients were chewing 15 to 20 sticks a day, plus sweets. Commercial pitch: Sugar-free gum helps you lose weight! Fine print: … by working two orifices at once. (Related: The war on soda; the war on junk food; fat-blocking pills and anal leakage.)

The amputee sprinter with prosthetic legs was banned from the Olympics. Rationale: The carbon-fiber legs are advantageous "technical aids," in violation of athletic rules. Evidence: 1) Tests show that during sprints, his prostheses deliver three times the energy of a normal ankle joint. 2) They produce a "mechanical advantage" of more than 30 percent. 3) As a result, he can match a competitor's pace "with about 25 percent less energy expenditure." Objections: 1) The expert who did the tests said they don't prove an overall advantage. 2) It's wrong to forbid body aids that disabled people need to "walk, let alone run." Sentimental view: But this brave young man has beaten elite runners despite his disability! Unsentimental view: Exactly, and his prosthetic legs are the reason why. (Related: Human Nature's previous updates on the sprinter. Also, steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.)

The FDA certified that food from cloned animals is safe. Conclusion: "The weight of evidence indicates that meat and milk from clones and their progeny do not differ materially from meat and milk derived from their conventional counterparts." Key pattern: Abnormalities that sometimes show up early in a clone's life are "stabilized" as the animal grows and are "reset" in its offspring, leading to normality. Rationale: This solves the problem, since economics dictates that food will be sold from sexual offspring of clones, not from clones themselves. Caveats: 1) There aren't enough data to certify the safety of cloned sheep. 2) Since newborn cattle clones are unstable, their products "may pose some very limited human food consumption risk." 3) The FDA will keep tracking the health of cloned animals and will reserve judgment on the effects of new techniques, including genetic modification. Objection: The conventional food we eat is already unsafe, yet the government is compounding the problem by foisting clones on us. Rebuttal: The conventional food we eat is already unsafe, so clones are no worse. (Related: Human Nature's defense of cloned food.)

A study confirmed a third way to make versatile stem cells. First way: Pluck cells from an embryo, killing it, and nurture them in a lab. Second way, demonstrated two months ago: Inject an adult cell with a virus that genetically alters it to mimic an embryonic stem cell. New way: Pluck the starter cell from the embryo very early, when the embryo can survive the loss. Bad news: President Bush won't fund this method generally, because you can't prove it doesn't somehow harm the surviving embryos. Good news: Bush might fund it if you're plucking a cell from the embryo anyway to test for genetic flaws. (Rationale: In that scenario, making stem cells from the extracted cell doesn't add any risk to what you're already doing.) Cynical view: By the time we figure out all these angles, Bush will be gone, and the original method will be funded. (Related: Human Nature's preview of the new methods and reactions to them.)

Scientists grew beating, disembodied hearts. Recipe: Take a dead rat heart, filter out its cells, and use the remaining structural "matrix" as a framework for heart cells taken from newborn rats. Apply electrical stimulus and circulatory pressure. Results: The hearts began to beat and were successfully transplanted into unrelated rats, whose cells began to colonize them. Old idea: Regenerate your heart inside your body. New idea: Grow a new heart in the lab, then put it in your body. Hype: 1) We can grow whatever organs you need. 2) Unlike donor organs, they'll be compatible with your immune system, since they'll be made from your cells. Criticisms: 1) The study involved rats, not people. 2) The recolonized vessels might cause clots. 3) If it works in people, it'll take us at least a decade to get there. 4) And recipients might still need immunosuppressive drugs. (Related: 1) A military project to regrow lost body parts using matrix. 2) Lab-grown blood vessels. 3) Lab-grown livers. 4) Lab-grown bladders. 5) Lab-grown breast implants. 6) Lab-grown meat. 7) Growing organs through embryo farming.)

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