Friday, June 29, 2007

More on Stem Cell Ethics...

I think it is pretty much agreed that gametes-namely egg and sperm do not have the same moral worth as a human being. So consider this. Wired Science reports that scientists have get unfertilized egg cells to divide and produce stem cells. The scientists, writing in the Journal Cloning and Stem Cells, report they were able to coax haploid unfertilized eggs into parthenogenically producing diploid blastocysts from which stem cells could be harvested.

Wired Science reports some ethicists think that what the scientists have done will be seen as merely some sort of activation of egg cells. But consider this interesting comment by Rev. Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia:

"My view is that if these grow as organized embryos for the first few days and then arrest, they may just be very short-lived human beings ... One is very possibly dealing with a defective human being. And at a minimum, the benefit of the doubt should be given here, and these embryos should not be created for the purposes of destroying them."

It sounds to me he is arguing that it is the organization of the cells into a unit that is somehow what gives cells extra moral worth over say, a tumor. Without knowing more about the technique, we can ask when did this extra moral worth come about? Was it when the haploid egg first became diploid? If so, then that in itself means that any old diploid cell would do. Is there some particular sort of biochemical cascade that when triggered, sets the cell on to the path of embryological development and greater moral worth? If so it seems that would be a mighty uncomfortable conclusion for some-that moral worth depends on biochemistry. It also implies that life (meaning human life) does not "begin with conception" as the anti abortion sloganeering claims. In fact conception is not required if I am following the Reverend's logic!

Ooops! I wonder if the Reverend really wants to follow those possible implications of his logic.

By the way there is a follow up in the Wired Science Blog which considers whether or not these embryos have souls. The post by Brandon Keim argues that perhaps they do. And Keim makes the following metaphysical speculation:

"... As for the continuing life of the stem cells, it's clear that their soul is not equivalent to that of a mature person, or even a baby within the womb. This doesn't necessarily mean that's it's worth less -- merely that it's at a different stage, with different characteristics. Might it be said that, in a hypothetical stem cell therapy, as stem cells mature and replace damaged tissue, the soul of the cells fuses with the soul of their recipient? And that the soul of those cells, their life potential, isn't lost, but instead is preserved?"

Oh dearie me...so cells can have souls? Souls can fuse? Sounds to me like a throw back to the vitalism of the early 20th century.


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