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August 09, 2005

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Whew. Read the whole thing, with breaks for thought. Lot of common-sense or intuitional morality that I am prone to question just cause I am a jerk, but nothing I would argue strongly about. Much seems to hinge on good taste, for instances, why not hand your deceased loved one to a taxidermist or have a shrunken head as a watch fob?

However, on human reproductive cloning, besides the fact that I can think of few good principled reasons for opposition (practically current inefficiencies make experiments abhorrent) I also have an intuition that the problems of defining what is a human being will get more complicated rather than less, and minds should be kept open. Although we won't be uploading ourselves to mainframes for a while yet.

Bob M: yeah, I was trying to figure out how to (a) keep the post to a manageable length, and (b) not do a full-bore phil. argument of the sort that would really only interest other philosophy types.

For what it's worth, I'm ready to argue that there are no problems with killing blastocysts other than those that come from arguments akin to those we use in thinking about corpses (though there are other sorts of arguments against non-lethally harming them, since in that case you will, eventually, be harming a sentient and conscious being). That there is a requirement not to kill blastocysts for no good reason needs a somewhat longer argument -- it comes from the farther reaches of my version of Kantianism -- but I was hoping that it would be a decent articulation of what some people who are not anti-abortion, but who do think that not anything goes, might be worried about.

That was the hope, anyways.

Sorry; this is unclear: "there are no problems with killing blastocysts other than those that come from arguments akin to those we use in thinking about corpses"

I meant: in a given instance, some act of killing a blastocyst might violate the sorts of requirements of respect that we also have with respect to corpses. There is no more direct prohibition against killing blastocysts.

I'm ready to argue that there are no problems with killing blastocysts other than those that come from arguments akin to those we use in thinking about corpses

But doesn't the requirement to treat corpses with respect derive, at least in part, from a requirement to honor the wishes of the deceased?

Isn't that why we don't take out organs for transplantation, or send bodies off to the anatomy lab or the Body Farm, unless the deceased specifically gave permission while alive?

Leaving the conclusion aside for the moment, it's hard for me to see how the cases are analogous.

Bernard: you are (of course) right that there's nothing analogous, in the case of a blastocyst, to the requirement to respect the wishes of the deceased: blastocysts have no previously formed wishes. (This was one of the things I was thinking about when I wrote the 'I don't mean to suggest any deep similarity between blastocysts and corpses' paragraph.) However: suppose you don't know what a given person would have wanted done with his corpse. And suppose further that whereas in many cases you can make certain assumptions about this, in the case before you you can't. (Maybe the person whose corpse this was was so eccentric that you really can't say anything at all with confidence about what he would have wanted done with his corpse. Maybe a body washes ashore on your South Pacific island, and you don't know where it comes from, but you do know that there are lots and lots of isolated communities with very different, and incompatible, views on the treatment of the dead. Make up whatever story seems most plausible to you, so long as the upshot is: you are truly clueless about what someone would have wanted done, clueless enough that for any thing you might do to it, you think: I can't say that it's more likely that this person would have wanted this done than not, or that it's more likely he would not have wanted this done.)

In that case, you can have no idea at all what it would mean to respect the wishes of the deceased, so that question goes out the window. Are there any constraints on what you can do with the corpse? I think there are, actually, and these -- not the requirement to follow the wishes of the deceased -- are like the restrictions on what one can do with blastocysts.

I've been thinking along a whole different line. Here is this supposed big moral dilemna about doing things to a blastocyst that can't think or feel just because it is a potential person. Where is the concern about doing research on chimpanzees that can think and feel in ways very simlilar to us? (This isn't aimed at Hilzoy, of course).
I like Hilzoy's suggestion that respect be the basis for decision making. Empathy also would be a good basis for decision making in research--empathy for the creature involved in the research as well as empathy for the potential benefctors. It seem to me the Krauthammer's thinking is shallow on two fronts: he is obessed with the very beginning of human life at the expense of humans who are actually living, and he is only concerned with the moral issues involved in using human life, as if there was no moral issue involved in the use of other living things in experiments.

Lily: actually, I think there are huge problems with experimenting on the great apes. At least we aren't catching them in the wild anymore -- they normally caught infants, which normally requires killing at least the mother, and sometimes more adults, and then taking the infant off for a horrible life of biomedical experimentation.

The issues involving animal experimentation are really contentious, especially since there has been a huge and bitter mini-war between animal rights activists and researchers, which had the effect of making both sides dig in their heels and refuse to listen to anything the other side said. But mercifully that bitterness is fading a bit.

I've always thought there's one thing that would make a huge difference, and that both sides ought to be able to agree on, namely: in most experiments on really smart animals, especially large ones, I'd guess that more suffering is due to their housing conditions than to the experiment itself. (Look at the housing for chimps in the photos on this page, for instance. We humans think that incarceration is one of the worst punishments there is. I don't see why it would be better for chimps.)

Adequate housing, which would give chimps enough room to move around and play and have something remotely resembling a decent life, would be expensive. But to me the question: should we spend money so that animals we use for research, sometimes painful research, without their consent, can have something approaching a tolerable life? ought to be an easy one. If we're going to conscript animals in this way, we owe them some gratitude. In any case, people who don't think that biomedical research on great apes is wrong might be able to agree that we should spend enough to give them a shot at a decent life; and in that way, even if we all keep disagreeing on the research, we can still eliminate most of their needless suffering.

"Where is the concern about doing research on chimpanzees that can think and feel in ways very simlilar to us?"

There are definitely problems with willy-nilly doing research on chimpanzees.

You know, I just can't comprehend the moral dilemma here. A blastocyst isn't a person. It doesn't even have the remotest capacity for considering its own existence or sensing the world around it. It's a relatively unsophisticated collection of living cells that happen to have human DNA. Bully for it--so are the occasional cells from my hair follicles that get deposited on my brush. But I don't cremate the hair that falls out, and I didn't hold a funeral for my fingernail the time I lost an entire one.

In Hilzoy's post, she says that she will not deal with the question of whether or not it is morally okay to destroy a blastocyst, and instead addresses whether it is okay to do so for good reasons. I'm sorry, but this is a dodge and I can't accept it--you are begging your first question in order to ask your second. For people who don't buy the premise that there is any inherent value or personhood in a blastocyst, your second is meaningless.

I can respect people who place value on a blastocyst for what it might, under the right circumstances, become. But an acorn is not an oak tree, and the distinction matters. We treat the question of whether it's right to cut down an old oak tree much differently than the question of what to do with an acorn lying on the ground, and people who have no problem with painting or doing silly craft projects with acorns might have a big problem with someone spraypainting an oak tree in their yard.

These distinctions are not something you blithely dispense with--they are the entire crux of the matter. You can't argue under what circumstances it's right to experiment on blastocysts without first making an assumption about their inherent value or nature.

It's such a cute little blastocyst, though.

Catsy: I wasn't trying to say that the question wasn't worth addressing. It's just that Katherine asked about this article, which is about SCNT, and SCNT raises two questions: (a) is it wrong to destroy blastocysts? and (b) is it wrong to create them in order to destroy them? So I was trying to address (b), not because the first question isn't worth asking -- it is -- but because I was trying to focus on what's special about SCNT; what makes it different from other ways of destroying blastocysts.

In that case, you can have no idea at all what it would mean to respect the wishes of the deceased, so that question goes out the window. Are there any constraints on what you can do with the corpse?

Yes, but they're self-imposed, arbitrary.

Maybe a body washes ashore on your South Pacific island, and you don't know where it comes from, but you do know that there are lots and lots of isolated communities with very different, and incompatible, views on the treatment of the dead.

Say bodies go to those places. They won't all be treated the same way but rather according to the local customs.

I think part of problem in the stem cell debate is that it would be something decided by customs if only there were stem cells two thousand flipping years ago. Now, even people who otherwise have the same customs (for the dead, for instance) come up with different ways to apply them to the new situation.

"Consider the question: why have we not yet banned human reproductive cloning?"

Oh, that's easy. We have not yet banned human reproductive cloning because rich people benefit from it.

Because rich people derive preferential benefit from it, George Bush will not ban it. (Rarely, there is a bit of grumbling about it - but never any serious opposition to it - on the Wingnut Right. But no pickets, no bombings of reproductive clinics, no assassinations of providers. Those attacks are reserved for services used by poor women.)

But because rich people derive no preferential benefit from further stem cell research, Bush wants to limit it.

It's really that easy.

Thanks for this very interesting post. I wonder whether you see any difference between using blastocysts created via SCNT for research purposes and using so-called "surplus" blastocysts from IVF clinics? Mitt Romney, the Gov of my state (unfortunately), would permit the latter but ban the former, which strikes me as at best peculiar. Does anyone share my gut feeling that it's actually somehow "worse" to use a "surplus" IVF embryo, with its sperm-egg origin and unique DNA, for research, than to use an SCNT embryo, which is after all simply a carbon copy of its donor created by some technical wizardry?

David: the thing about excess IVF embryos is that almost all of them are either discarded or frozen indefinitely. (The existence of children who were once adopted embryos doesn't change this: no one really thinks that embryo adoption will even make a serious dent in the numbers of excess embryos.) So the thought is that if excess IVF embryos are going to be discarded or frozen indefinitely anyways, why not put them to good use? Whereas SCNT seems objectionable to some people just because it's creating embryos on purpose to be destroyed.

To my mind, if you're worried about IVF embryos, the thing to do would be to object to the practices that involve the creation of so many extra ones.

David, although I understand Hilzoy's logic, I actually do share your moral instinct regarding the use of frozen embryos created during an IVF process. Whatever else you can say about them, these embryos bear unique DNA sequences that are different from any other human, save perhaps an identical twin that might emerge upon implantation.

It seems to me that SCNT basically uses a human egg simply because it is a perfect medium in which to culture primitive cells of the type needed for further research, and because, as Hilzoy states, these cells enhances research opportnities because of they can be manipulated with incredible, possibly infinite, flexibility. The ONLY objection is that because these cells are placed within an egg they have the potential to be implanted. They do not, like the frozen embryos, bear a unique DNA sequence and were never intended at any level to become an infant. Perhaps I misunderstand what is happening through SCNT, but I am baffled by the idea that IVF embryos are preferable from a moral perspective.

P.S. The extra embryos aren't created so much as a matter of convenience, but as a matter of not knowing in advance how much attrition can be expected from retrieval to fertilization to three day growth to five day growth to implantation, etc. Once certain IVF techniques can be perfected (most notably, oocyte freezing) then surplus embryos will not be created. I do think that is the ultimate goal of those who engage in IVF, most of whom also don't particularly like the idea of embryos being frozen in perpetuity.

Barbara -- as I understand it, that's right about why there are excess IVF embryos (also: being able to choose the one (or more) that looks healthiest). But to me, 'not having to make another if the first one dies' falls under the heading of 'convenience'. (I'm a lot more sway-able by the other, 'use the healthiest embryos of a group of, say, 9' argument; though even there, I think that setting criteria for what one will use and what one won't, creating embryos one by one, and then sticking by those criteria, would result in many fewer excess embryos being discarded.)

Well, I realize that the line between convenience and necessity can be malleable, but not having to undergo an invasive medical procedure more times than absolutely necessary doesn't seem like convenience to me. Let's say you get 10 eggs -- if you knew that 90% would fertilize, and 2/3 of those would make it to day three, and that 1/3 of those would make it to implanation, then you might only fertilize 5, in order to get 4 embryos, 2-3 of which might make it to day 3, and only one of which would implant, so no frozens. But if the range is 50% to 100% fertilize, and the other ranges are similarly wide and uncertain, then by not fertilizing all of them you are clearly risking the entire cycle, not just once but again and again if you keep adhering to the same methodology. When you are talking about larger numbers (say 20) then you are probably on firmer ground, although even there, there are definitely cycles in which only 5-6 out of 20 will fertilize.

But I suspect my bottom line is similar to yours: if these microscopic entities were able to contemplate their fate it would bother me a lot that they are suspended in a semi-permanent frozen status (presumably their viability will decline at some point), but they aren't, so it doesn't really perturb me a whole lot.

Anyone here GOOGLE
to find out how SUPER GREAT adult style stem cells (ASC) are proving to be???
(For instance, GOOGLE:

adult stem cells pluripotent

(Yes, adult stem cells can now be manipulated to imitate other cells--the one touted benefit of the embryonic cells before)

Why back a morally dubious loser like embryonic stem cells???

Right now (last I heard) women had to be BLASTED with fertility drugs in order to overstimulate egg production.

(And I note--the gynecologist's women's health questionnaire now includes "taking fertility drugs" on its risk list...)

SOOO>>>>yet another risk (risk to the women used as "egg farms) might be ELIMINATED by using adult stem cells ASC

(Again GOOGLE adult stem cells pluripotent or treatments).. ASC wins the stem cell SUPERBOWL 100 to 3!!!

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