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Aug 05

Senator Specter's Snake Oil

Funky recently sent an email to Senater Arlen Specter regarding stem cells and cloning. He got the following response, which he forwarded to me. I was more than happy to fisk it for him. Senator Specter is a noted proponent of science and embryonic stem cell research in particular. As his letter to Funky indicates below, he should spend less time advocating and more time with a undergraduate-biology text, as he makes some very basic mistakes in describing what cloning is and is not. Presumably he sent similar letter to other constituents, and so fisking this mess of half-truths is even more important.

"Cloning and stem cell research have been topics of much debate over the past several months. Unfortunately, a key fact that sometimes gets lost in the rhetoric is that there are really two types of cloning: therapeutic cloning, which is not really cloning at all, and reproductive cloning."

Okay, therapeutic cloning is not really cloning, we’re going to have some words about that, but let’s see how this is developed first.

"I believe that human reproductive cloning is unethical, irresponsible, and dangerous. However, the other technique, which has been misnamed therapeutic cloning, is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. The entire procedure takes place in a petri dish, not in a person. Also, a sperm never fertilizes the egg. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a baby is never born."

Specter considers birth and being fertilized by a sperm to be crucial factors in why therapeutic cloning is not morally wrong, which is curious to say the least.

First off, Specter makes an implicit error in describing cloning. He states that since reproductive cloning does not involve fertilization with sperm, it is not really cloning. WRONG. The whole idea with cloning is that you do not combine genes from different organisms (i.e., a male and a female) but take them from ONE organism. NEITHER reproductive nor therapeutic cloning use sperm, since that contradicts what a clone is supposed to be. For a supposed advocate of science research, this sort of mistake or ambiguity (Maybe he was trying to make some sort of different point? Maybe it was the intern’s fault?) is a disgrace.

Now let’s get into some other issues. At the end of the paragraph, we read that therapeutic cloning is okay because "a baby is never born". Well, once again, we hit the issue of abortion and when personhood begins.

We also see that because a child is not born, it is okay. Does this mean that we must spend some time in a uterus to have our humanity conferred upon us? What is the substance in the uterus or placenta that does that?

One of my pet peeves is that the "life begins at conception" position is called religious, whereas hand-waving type arguments such as "personhood begins at birth" are not, even though the latter cannot point to any significant, intrinsic change to organism that would make a believable difference in the organism’s moral status, whereas the conception benchmark can point to the establishment of an organism’s identity as a separate organism with its own genome.

Such arbitrariness finds its apotheosis in utilitarianism, where there is no real inherent personhood, just a relative weighing of everyone’s good. If more benefit from your demise than you would stand to gain from remaining alive, then you lose. Good night.

"On April 21, 2005, I, with Senators Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch, Tom Harkin and Edward Kennedy introduced S. 876, the "Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2005," which prohibits human cloning while preserving important areas of medical research. My bill would prohibit human reproductive cloning by imposing a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a civil penalty of at least $ 1 million dollars. "

So if we bring a cloned human embryo to term, we’re criminals, but if we kill it early, we can do important research and get Mr. Specter’s applause.

Ya know, people would sometimes attack pro-lifers for going on about "slippery slopes", but read this paragraph of Specter’s closely: it is no longer a matter of "choice" with what we do with our embryos, since now in the case of cloned embryos, Messrs. Specter and Kennedy want to make it mandatory for us to kill cloned embryos, because if we brought them to term, we’d face severe federal penalties. Where is the abortion rhetoric taking us now that our abilities to manipulate organisms are far more varied and powerful than in 1973, when the Supreme Court declared it open season on prenatal human life with Roe v. Wade?

Perhaps within a few decades, we will be able raise a human being from a fertilized egg to a full-term infant without the use of a uterus. Such a child would not be born, and so according to Specter’s letter, perhaps that child would not be a person. Can we do what we want with such children if they are vat-grown, so to speak, and not raised in utero?

"Over the past four years as both Ranking Member, and now Chairman, of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research."

Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research.

Okay, check out Do No Harm and see that adult stem cells are delivering the goods on many of those diseases in the here and now. Adult stem cells are technically simpler to harvest and manipulate–recall the KISS principle of engineering: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Alzheimer’s is a red herring for embryonic researchers: replacing the brain tissue will not necessarily replace the personality who originally got the dementia. Besides, if you do not focus on the amyloid plaque production that causes Alzheimer’s in the first place, trying to make new neurons and glial cells doesn’t make much sense.

With their ability to replace damaged cells and tissue, stem cells appear to be a veritable fountain of youth.

Ah, and folks like Specter think that pro-lifers are manipulative by playing on people’s guilt for killing fetuses, yet these guys make promises about fountains of youth when even big embryonic researchers, like the cloning researcher in South Korea, admit that any sort of human treatment may be a decade or more past the horizon.

In the meantime we are getting many adult stem cell treatments either in the market now, or in the FDA pipeline. How long before embryonic stuff even gets to the beginning of the FDA’s arduous testing?

For a quick fisking of embryonic research rhetoric, check out this First Things article.

"In their embryonic stage, stem cells show great promise for a wide range of therapeutic use, as they are capable of giving rise to any cell type in the body. If a person’s neurons have been damaged by Parkinson’s disease, the stem cells can be turned into brain cells and used to replace the patient’s damaged cells. If a patient has suffered heart damage, stem cells can be turned into heart cells and replace the patient’s damaged cells with new, healthy heart cells."

Again, already being done with adult stem cells, and without the risk of rejection from using foreign embryonic stem cells, or the baroque process of cloning one’s own embryos to create genetically identical stem cells. See my point about KISS above.

"Nuclear transplantation is one of the most promising techniques using stem cells. This technique combines a donated, unfertilized egg with the nucleus of a body cell from a patient. This creates an embryo that is genetically identical to the patient. Next, the cells divide and form a hollow ball of about 100 cells from which stem cells can be derived. These stem cells can then be turned into whatever type of cells the patient needs to repair damage done by injury or disease. Therapeutic cloning is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a cloned baby is never born."

Which begs the question of abortion and personhood. The paragraph does describe the process of cloning and killing very well in a technical sense, but it does not solve any moral debates.

"This promise of this research is so great that 40 Nobel prize winners, over 100 patient advocacy groups, actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Kevin Kline, and former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have written to Congress and the President pleading with us to ban reproductive cloning but allow nuclear transplantation and stem cell research to go forward. The legislation that I have introduced does exactly this. Importantly, my bill would allow medical research into nuclear transplantation, thereby allowing promising research towards cures for a vast array of disease to proceed. In addition, my bill would apply strict Federal ethical requirements to all nuclear transplantation research, which includes informed consent, an ethics review board, and protections for the safety and privacy of research participants."

Ah, so here were are trying to bank on some sort of inherent moral authority that Nobel prize-winners, actors, and politicians possess.

So if a scientist says that something is good, it must be so? History makes me skeptical, to say the least. Many scientists once advocated eugenics–the USA had a thriving eugenics movement that the Nazis used at a template for their own work, and eugenics was quite trendy until WWII and news of the Holocaust snapped people out of it. Where was the morality in that? What makes scientists more inherently ethical than others?

In short, using scientists as a sort of secular priesthood, or permitting any elite to define its own values and compel the public as a whole to follow these values without a broader dialogue and consensus is incompatible with a Republic. I wish that a Senator of all people could do better!

And why should I give a rat’s tail what a Hollwood actor thinks? Many Hollwood actors think that bad thoughts were implanted in us by an evil alien named Xenu, a la Scientology. At least Nobel prize-winners have actually done some real thinking about something at some point in their lives. They’re a less laughable authority than Hollywood.

I’ll do y’all a favor and not get started on Clinton. Former President Ford, I can understand, since from what I’ve heard he may be even clumsier than me, and no doubt wants a reliable supply of spare parts. Perhaps he could be turned around with some good demonstrations of existing non-embryonic technologies. 🙂

"Currently, it is unclear whether either bill has the votes needed to pass the Senate. I am hopeful, however, that Congress will be able to move ahead in banning reproductive cloning, while simultaneously establishing a regulatory group to oversee how the science of nuclear transplantation helps discover life sustaining cures. While some people consider research on human embryos inherently unethical, I believe that such objections might be outweighed if the research on nuclear transplantation was proven to be beneficial for the purposes of saving the lives of many Americans."

The same has been said for other controversial research before, and I feel ill that a Jewish person, of all ethnic minorities, can say this without a second thought. How quickly we forget!

Medical atrocities happen within the US; many people know about how poor rural blacks were used as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but even more recently in the 1960s, a New York City facility (Willowbrook State School) deliberately infected mentally retarded patients with hepatatis as a research experiment.

But hey, syphilis and hepatitis are serious public health risks, so while you and I consider it unethical, it is in the public good, right? And it’s only retarded people and poor blacks, right? What were they going to do anyway?

"Again, thank you for bringing your views to my attention. Be assured that I will remain attentive to your concerns as the Congress grapples with this difficult, yet vitally important issue affecting so many lives. If you have any further questions on this issue or any related matter, please do not hesitate to contact me or visit my website, at http://specter.senate.gov. "

Oh, you’ll be hearing from us again, Mr. Senator…. Mwah ha ha ha! 😉

Update:

Here’s a news article relevant to this topic:

"Option to stem cells found: Pitt experts say placental cells offer palatable alternative"

"University of Pittsburgh researchers have discovered that one type of cell in the human placenta has characteristics that are strikingly similar to embryonic stem cells in their ability to regenerate a wide variety of tissues."

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