2007-06-23

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Once again, opportunities for federally-funded research with new human embryonic stem cell lines has been thwarted in the United States by one man and a likely 1/3+ of the U.S. Congress.

Once again they have acted on their belief that it is more important to keep eight-celled cultures in medium, or simply destroy them, than to conduct research that might improve the lives, or even save the lives, of indisputably full human persons.

Where can such a point of view come from? This is not an argument about life. There is no dispute that an embryo is alive, just as the zygote is alive, the sperm and egg cells are alive, most cells in one's body are alive, and everything from bacteria to funguses are alive. No controversy arises from using bacteria or adult living cells in research.

This is also not an argument about human life. Again, embryos are indisputably human and alive, just as the cells in your thumb right now are indisputably human and alive. Yet using the cells in your thumb for research would not be controversial.

The difference between a cell in your thumb and the zygote, or fertilized egg cell, is that the latter is a totipotent cell, that is, under the typical circumstances under which it arises, it begins to divide and form specialized cells, all leading to the generation of a new human organism.

But the general scientific hunch is that the zygote is not different in its cellular contents from any other somatic cell in the human body. What is different about it is the way it is "programmed" for totipotency. The main point of research on embryonic stem cells is to understand and learn how to control this "programming" so that we can figure out how to heal cells and tissues, regenerate damaged tissues, and so on.

If the scientific hunch is right, any cell in your body could, in theory, be modified and programmed to become totipotent, and thus under the right circumstances, develop into a new human organism. The "miracle" of conception is close to being understood as a modification of a typical cell, using its own inner machinery, to unleash the capacity it inherently possesses to be able to form a new human organism.

As with many natural phenomena formerly considered miraculous, exposing the natural reality threatens the misunderstandings and illusions human societies have built up and protected over millennia. Although human beings have always decided the time and circumstances of procreative sex, the phenomenon of conception itself has been shrouded in ignorance until recently, so that it could be attributed to magical workings.

There are evidently people at the highest levels of federal government in the U.S. who believe in spirit beings. In particular, they believe in a spirit-being who pre-conceives each fully grown human persons in "his" mind, fashions a new "soul" for each new person, and then inserts this new soul into the single-celled zygote resulting from the sexual copula of two humans. It is painful to consider the naivete of this delusion, but even more so the harmful consequences following from believing it.

Although no one knows of any spirit-being which pre-knows human persons, parents who deliberately conceive by procreative sex or in vitro fertilization usually have a child in mind. Though the zygote has no "soul", the future child will have a conscious mind, a personality, memories, feelings, and personal identity, and all the other natural phenomena which lie behind the delusional concept of the "soul".

It is unfortunate that current reproductive technology is not able to produce just the embryo desired to be implanted, which would become the child the parents wanted. Because of lack of adequate research, we are still ignorant of the cellular mechanisms surrounding fertilization and making a fertilized egg ready for successful implantation and gestation.

It is, ironically, the failures of reproductive technology which have provided the embryos that could be used for studying embryonic stem cells.

But someday, the mechanisms for programming a cell for totipotency will be able to be understood. Then any cell in the adult human body will be able, by modification and programming, to be made into the practical equivalent of a zygote that could either produce new stem cells or perform other research functions, or if implanted in the right circumstances (a natural or artificial womb, for example), be developed into a new human organism. The ethical argument will thus not disappear even after reproductive technology is able to produce just the right number of healthy embryos for prospective parents.

Understanding the machinery of the human cell will certainly be awe-inspiring. But our understanding of reproduction will also, at the same time, be demystified. We will need to come to a realistic understanding of our cells and this realistic understanding will have to form the foundation for our ethical attitudes towards them.