Marrow With Children

Science, technology, and life.
May 22 2008 7:46 AM

Marrow With Children

If you're tired of reading about how dead Hillary Clinton is or how long it'll take her to admit it, fly with me across the Atlantic for a couple of minutes. A monumental debate is going on in the British House of Commons over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill , which will influence how governments around the world regulate family and reproductive issues in the next century.

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

Everything's on the table in this free-for-all: late-term abortions , human-animal hybrids , and IVF for lesbians and unmarried women.

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The liberals are steamrolling the conservatives. None of the proposed restrictions has passed. But what's really intriguing is the difference in vote counts among the various issues. It tells us something about which values people care about most. Is it life? Sex? Human dignity?

Here's how many members of Parliament voted for each proposed restriction:

A. Ban abortions after 22 weeks instead of the current 24 weeks: 233.

B. Require clinics to consider the "need for a father " in approving women for IVF: 217.

C. Ban abortions after 20 weeks : 190.

D. Ban the use of gutted animal eggs to make human embryos for research: 176.

E. Ban genetic testing of embryos to choose (for implantation and birth) those that could grow tissue for transplant to an already-born sibling: 163.

F. Ban abortions after 16 weeks : 84.

So the most popular restriction was on late-term abortions. Chalk one up for life.

But wait: The number of votes to prevent lesbian parenthood beat out the number of votes to prevent abortions after 20 weeks. From this, you could make a pretty good argument that feminists are right: Some supporters of abortion restrictions care more about regulating sex and family structure than about protecting life.

Personally, I'm sure of this. The proof is that most people who support abortion bans also support exceptions for rape and incest , where the life considerations are the same, but the sex and family-structure considerations are different.

Now look at the vote count on banning human-animal hybrids. The hybrids in question aren't equal mixtures of human and animal. They're fully human cell nuclei cloned inside eviscerated animal eggs, for lack of available human eggs. In other words, the animal contribution is minimal, almost inconsequential. Furthermore, the embryos are just for research and cell derivation, not for procreation. I'm not saying this is unobjectionable. I'm just pointing out that the degree of mixture is trivial.

Nevertheless, the number of votes to ban it is more than double the number of votes to ban abortions after 16 weeks. To that extent, "human dignity" beats out life. It seems that keeping our DNA separate from that of animals is more important than saving those second-trimester babies.

But that's still not the headline, in my book. The headline is that restrictions on lesbian IVF and trivial species mixture outpolled restriction of genetic testing to choose embryos for tissue harvesting. The common term for this practice is "savior siblings." Here's the prototypical situation : Your daughter has a serious disease. She needs compatible bone marrow. The best way to get it is for you and your spouse to make another baby and transplant its bone marrow to her. But not all your offspring will have tissue that matches hers. To guarantee a match, you need to make a batch of embryos, implant one that matches, and forget about the rest.

The happy ending is that your daughter is saved, and you've made another child to love. But you've also crossed a line. You've made a bunch of human embryos and then flushed them not because of anything wrong with them, but because they weren't useful . And if there's no tissue match, you've crossed that line for nothing.

In my view, the rise of this mentality -- the reconceptualization of human beings as medical tools and resources -- is way more dangerous than gender upheaval, species-mixing, or even abortion. Abortions, no matter what you think of them, are defensive. Tissue harvesting, on the other hand, carries an affirmative mandate. It entitles you, and arguably obliges you, to deliberately create new human life, which will then live or die based on its utility to others.

Contrary to pro-life rhetoric, there's no broad incentive to increase the number of abortions. But there's plenty of incentive to increase the number of sibling saviors. That's why sibling saviors scored so well in the House of Commons. This is one thing I've learned from covering biotechnology: Bad things don't happen because they're bad. They happen because they're good .

Keep an eye on this utilitarian mindset as we continue to take ourselves apart. As the British debate illustrates, it'll be hard to stop.

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