Monday, March 14, 2005

Angels on needles, embryos in the lab

Is there a compromise in the stem cell debate?

March 14, 2005.
No issue is so wrought with profound ethical considerations as the stem cell debate, the cloning of human embryos to produce stem cells that might—might—help in the amelioration or cure of some seriously awful diseases. The issue was brought to the fore a week ago at the President’s Council on Bioethics in Washington. In a deeply thoughtful discussion of that meeting and another in Rome called by the Vatican, Slate’s William Saletan points out the complexity and also the philosophical-religious differences. “It was like Socrates trying to carve up a bowl of chicken soup,” he wrote. How you stand could depend on whether you are Catholic or Jewish. (The presumption is that Protestants are all over the place). Catholics are more certain about things (Is there life after death? Of course and here’s what it’s like) than are Jews (Unless someone dies and come back how could we possibly know, but if there is one it might be like this...), yet more attuned to reason, while Jews are more often happier with intuition. Catholics give answers; Jews raise questions. Hairs were split and Saletan found himself surrounded by white-robed monks with Ph.D.s in biology from M.I.T., and discovered that the head of the Vatican office that used to be called the Inquisition is named Charlie Brown. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, a physician (a psychiatrist, actually), who happens to also be Jewish and a member of the bioethics commission, wrote thoughtfully in the Post of a compromise that might bridge the theological gaps. No creating human embryos for experimentation—which would require growing embryos that were designed not to develop further—but using left-over embryos from fertility clinics. In other words, we should be able to use embryos created for the potential development of human life but not those created to be destroyed. Krauthammer, a conservative, separates himself from President Bush’s position banning federal funds for these experiments, pointing out that, however, it only is a ban on federal funds, not the experimentation itself.


Graham P Collins said...


I think the image that you have accompanying this piece is misleading. My inexpert understanding is that embryos at a much earlier stage of development are used. So early, they look more like clumps of cells than like an organism with even the beginnings of a head.

This is an important aspect that is often overlooked in the ethical debate. To a layman, the term "embryo" conjures up an image like the one you have shown, yet it is a far more primitive organism that is involved in actuality.

Joel Shurkin said...

Absolutely correct and I will change it immediate. (Those of you coming in now will not know what we're talking about but I used a picture of an embryo far more advanced than what we're talking about and Graham was kind enough to point that out. I'm changing it.