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July 06, 2006

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This is not a substantive comment, but I can't help hearing a drawled, "I was out on the back 40 yesterday, Maw. Them fetuses shore is looking like a good crop this year."

The first NEJM article linked (Politically Correct Human Embryonic Stem Cells, 353 NEJM 2321) depends critically on the assumption that opponents of stem cell research in the United States do not care at all about matters of degree. That is, about either the likelihood of a group of cells capable of producing human life being wilfully prevented from doing so or about the number of such cells, or both. Having not followed stem cell debates that closely (I, unfairly perhaps, tuned out upon coming to believe that there was a very large overlap between stem cell research opponents and members of pro-life groups that I disagree with), is that there position, that stem cell research isn't something you can be at all compromising about? Presumably so, by analog to their position on abortion, but I don't know. Also, that article is pretty readable for someone who hasn't taken biology since high school, there's only one or two terms I would need to look up.

I think one reason we get such strange commentary on stem cells is that it cuts deeply into a lot of the mushy support for the pro-life movement. Many people, I expect, don't think all that much about IVF and to the extent that they do they're troubled by the idea of embryos floating in an ice tank someplace, but not so troubled as to advocate for laws regulating the practice of IVF to prevent the creation of multiple embryos. The battle is, instead, fought over things like late-term abortions and judicial nominations.

But many people know someone with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or another disease that could potentially be helped by stem cell research. And many pro-life people have been very upset with Nancy Reagan's vocal support for the research. For if we as a society allow stem cell research, then Roe v. Wade was correctly decided.

It's easy to be pro-life if you don't have to bear any personal consequences of that viewpoint. But reading in the newspaper that your absolutism on abortion could be interfering with the development of cures for your family has to be causing a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Francis: It's easy to be pro-life if you don't have to bear any personal consequences of that viewpoint.

And no American "pro-lifer" ever has to bear any personal consequences of that viewpoint, even the women, unless she wants to. Which explains a lot, frankly.

Stem cell researchers generally do believe that what they're doing is not morally wrong, and they believe this because, according to them, there really is no problem with killing a five-day-old blastocyst.

Forgive the ignorance, but isn't there adult stem cell research going on, too?

Slarti, according to wiki (which information matches up with my state of unexpert interest, fwiw):

Embryonic stem cell research is "thought to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells," according to the National Institutes of Health. Research using embryonic stem cells remains at the zenith of stem cell science because, unlike somatic cells, embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. However, research using stem cells derived from the human embryo is still in the basic research phase, as these stem cells were first isolated in 1998 (at least for humans), whereas adult stem cells have been studied since the 1960s.
("Pluripotent" is a lovely word, isn't it?) Or, in short terms, embryonic stem cell research hasn't been going long but is already considered to have much more potential because embryonic stem cells can do so much more than stem cells cultured from adults.

We're talking blastocysts, not even zygotes...

Yes, I know what we're talking about. I didn't voice any objection to it, either. I'm simply pointing out that there exists stem cell research for which blastocyst does not apply. For the record, if experimenting with blastocysts eventually results in, for example, increased motor function for my daughter, I think I can support that.

And yes, pluripotent is nice, but I can't find it defined anywhere that's not contextual. Maybe if I'd taken latin...

Slarti: you're right; I was talking about embryonic stem cell researchers.

One important point (not prompted by what you said, but by the extent to which other people screw it up -- so that I take every opportunity to make it):

Adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells are very, very different. Sometimes you hear people (again, not Slarti) talk as though they were the same thing, except that one comes from an unproblematic source and the other doesn't. This is wrong; the same sort of mistake as supposing that "rowing machines" and "adding machines" are the same, so if you can't afford a rowing machine, an adding machine will get the job done pretty much as well for less money. "Machines" are not all alike. Neither are "stem cells".

Well, I just don't know enough about the topic to tell either way, but I'd assume that if adult stem cells were exactly the same and available in the same varieties as the emryonic kind, there wouldn't be much of a fight.

Then again, I could be wrong about that.

Slarti: For the record, if experimenting with blastocysts eventually results in, for example, increased motor function for my daughter, I think I can support that.

But - for the record - supposing that your daughter will never be helped by embryonic stem cell research, but other people will be?

AFAIK, no one I know personally will ever be helped by experiments done on cell cultures taken from blastocysts. I'm still in favor, though, partly because I think that a woman has as much right to donate a blastocyst to scientific research as she does to flush it down the john (and odds are, far more are flushed than used...) and partly because I think scientific research is in principle a good thing, even if it doesn't benefit me or any one I know directly.

But - for the record - supposing that your daughter will never be helped by embryonic stem cell research, but other people will be?

Yes, certainly. It was just one example. It'd be pretty...um...morally flexible of me otherwise, no?

AFAIK, no one I know personally will ever be helped by experiments done on cell cultures taken from blastocysts.

And, for all I know, neither will anyone I know. It's still early in the research cycle; it may be decades before this sort of thing pans out, and it might not pan out at all in some areas. If we knew the answers, we wouldn't be asking the questions.

Yes, certainly. It was just one example. It'd be pretty...um...morally flexible of me otherwise, no?

Well, yeah. That's why I asked. It seems to me it takes no moral backbone at all to be for scientific research that will directly benefit you or someone you love: so I was startled to see you offer this as your reason for supporting stem cell research. That's the kind of moral flexibility I expect from Nancy Reagan, not from you.

Thanks, I think.

But again, it was only an example. There are quite a lot of other people out there with problems that stem cell research could ultimately aid in. It is, to be honest, much easier for me to get enthusiastic about stem cell research when there's something at stake for me personally, even if it's a stretch. Going the other way, I never actually had an issue with it.

If it was all about killing actual babies to forward science, that'd be different. But blastocysts? No problem, here.

Slarti: It is, to be honest, much easier for me to get enthusiastic about stem cell research when there's something at stake for me personally, even if it's a stretch. Going the other way, I never actually had an issue with it.

Oh, fair enough. Sorry I snarked.

Never even got to taking offense, J. Just wanted to be clear, is all.

Slightly OT bleg:

Hilzoy, have you ever heard of these?

Are genetically engineered housepets even legal in the 'States?

I've got a couple of chairdogs, myself.

Otherwise, no.

HA! Thanks, Slarti.

That's the last time I pass along a bleg on behalf of an idiotic coworker.

Check out the guy's website; he's practically begging people not to take it seriously.

Apparently the person behind the project is originally from my hometown, London ON CA. I think I might know people who went to high school with him...

Bioengineered pets would, I think, be legal, if they existed. Certainly people are working on pet cloning, and bioengineered animals (e.g., mice for research) are legal.

"Are genetically engineered housepets even legal in the 'States?"

Yes. This is not a new subject. Setting aside that people have been writing about them in science fiction for many decades, people have been selling them for a bunch of years now. Just as, of course, all sorts of genetic engineering has now been going on for a couple of decades.

Here is a post I wrote last year with a link to an article about future pets, including Genetics Savings & Clone and other ventures. I've done other posts, but mostly not, since it's a fairly old subject. Here is another.

Then there's Pet TV. And DogCat Radio. Or maybe your pet needs a cell phone.

"Are genetically engineered housepets even legal in the 'States?"

"Otherwise, no."

Otherwise, yes. Genpets is a hoax, but the real companies are real and legal. Why would you say "no"? What law do you have in mind?

"...people have been selling them for a bunch of years now"

To be clearer, people have been selling genetically engineered animals for years, and also cloned pets.

Of course, pure-bred dogs are genetically engineered, too.

People tend to think of directly manipulating the genes as the only form of engineering, but that's a little silly; breeding works as well as it did for Mendel.

"Of course, pure-bred dogs are genetically engineered, too.

People tend to think of directly manipulating the genes as the only form of engineering, but that's a little silly; breeding works as well as it did for Mendel."

This is one of my silly (ahem) pet peeves about the no GM food people. They are happy to eat corn that has been genetically engineered for size and blight resistance for generations of farmer controlled selection, but they freak out over the much more controllable (in the sense of which genes get mixed in) direct genetic engineering.

Sebastian: They are happy to eat corn that has been genetically engineered for size and blight resistance for generations of farmer controlled selection, but they freak out over the much more controllable (in the sense of which genes get mixed in) direct genetic engineering.

Indeed. I'm happy to eat corn that has been genetically engineered for centuries and the genes for which are public domain. I'm a lot less happy about brand-new methods of interfering with edible crops, and really extremely unhappy about corporations thinking they can then claim they "own" a food crop as a result of making some tiny changes to the genome - some of which were made in order to make seeds useless without the pesticide which can only be bought from the corporation: some of which were made to make it impossible for farmers to save seed corn for next year's crop. In the whole human tradition of genetic engineering food crops, the engineer "owns" the first generation of seeds only: after that, it's the next engineer's turn. If corporations aren't willing to abide by that human tradition of common ownership, they should never have got into the genetic engineering business.

Why would you say "no"? What law do you have in mind?

"No", that I had not heard of these as legitimate pets. I thought it was obvious, but I frequently get that wrong.

All that aside, I'm eagerly awaiting the latest in genetically engineered corn dogs.

Slarti, I think you have to go to LA for those

"If having a cool haircut is so important to teenagers, then they must not care very much about wearing cool clothes."

You are very funny and I've bookmarked you site now...keep it coming, i love u!

Oh and if your looking for blood banks then go to http://www.bloodbanker.com for more info, they rock!

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