February 12, 2004

Clones, Stems, and Poached Eggs

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at February 12, 2004 11:54 AM

In the Times today: Cloning Creates Human Embryos. They were able to extract embryonic stem cells, so I assume this is a big step for stem cell research as well as human cloning. Yay science!

However, in an attempt to ruin my Darwin Day, here come the champions of ignorance, the enemies of progress, the religious conservatives President's Council on Bioethics:

Dr. Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, called for federal legislation to stop human cloning for any purpose.

"The age of human cloning has apparently arrived: today, cloned blastocysts for research, tomorrow cloned blastocysts for babymaking," Dr. Kass wrote in an e-mail message. "In my opinion, and that of the majority of the Council, the only way to prevent this from happening here is for Congress to enact a comprehensive ban or moratorium on all human cloning."

This isn't terribly surprising coming from Dr. Kass; as I recall, he was chosen for the position precisely because he's a total ideologue on this subject. Nevertheless, the argument is astonishingly stupid: a classic slippery slope fallacy. Who really believes that the only way to prevent reproductive cloning is to ban therapeutic cloning as well? Leon Kass has a Ph.D., so surely he's smart enough to understand that one could draft legislation banning one and not the other -- especially since this is what South Korea (where the research was performed) has done! Is this the best argument he can make for banning all forms of cloning?

(I'm well aware that the real reason for his opposition is that he is representing pro-life groups that believe that a blastocyst has the same rights as a human being. Obviously he can't argue from that premise, but surely he could come up with a better substitute!)

But if we want to talk ethics, I had to wonder about this statement:

In South Korea, Dr. Moon said in a telephone interview, there was no advertising for egg donors and no payments. The 16 women who donated the 242 eggs were "personal contacts," he said, declining to elaborate.

My first twisted thought was that they used their graduate students. "You want to graduate? Give us some more eggs! And hurry up, we've barely got two hundred!"


I know this probably assaults every liberal bone in your body, but as a woman...in possession of my own eggs...I don't think I could ever donate them for scientific research. Knowing that they could be used in stem-cell research, knowing that there was indeed a fertilized egg out there...that wasn't given a chance to develop...

I know that this sounds crazy, but I can't help but wonder what kind of person could come from each of those eggs...I know that it is not the same for every woman, and I certainly know that I'm not making a baby out of every single one of my eggs, but at least I'm not harvesting them to fertilize them and then destroy them in the name of science...we're saving people, but who knows who or what is being lost in the process?

Does this make any sort of sense? Am I making a point at all here? I'm not saying this from any sort of pro-life platform, I don't agree with those people and their methods...I just can't fully wrap my mind around cloning and stem-cell research. I guess I just start thinking about the thousands of ways that it could all go horribly horribly wrong...in the grand tradition of our government...

I never like responding to things like this, because I don't get to actually have a conversation about it, it's just me sending random thoughts out into the void. I guess it's all about keeping an open mind, right?

P.S. Happy Birthday Darwin :)

Posted by: Tracy | February 12, 2004 3:46 PM

Actually, my liberal bones don't feel assaulted at all. (I wonder if I have any conservative bones, and if so, which ones they are...?) They're your eggs; I'm not going to presume to dictate what you should do with them.

My logical bones, on the other hand... I must admit that they find aspects of your thought process somewhat odd. (Presumably these bones contribute to making my skull so thick.) It seems to me that every woman generates a large number of eggs over her lifetime, and for each egg she chooses between the following options:

1. Fertilize the egg, or
2. Allow the egg to be destroyed.

Now for the vast majority of her eggs the woman chooses option 2. (I recognize the vast oversimplification in this statement, but I don't think it's fatal to the argument.)

The way I see it is that we now add a third option,

3. Donate the egg for scientific research,

in which the fate of the egg is ultimately the same as in the frequently-selected option 2, with some added public good in the form of scientific knowledge or possibly medical treatments. Where my logical bones cry out their objection is when it is claimed (and it's not at all clear that this is what you're claiming) that option 3 is a morally questionable choice for a woman who would choose option 2 in the absence of 3. In terms of the choice made by the donor I don't see any way 3 can be morally any worse than 2.

The question, I suppose, is whether you are advancing a moral argument (which would implicitly apply to all women) or simply stating your discomfort. In the former case I do think you are wrong, but in the latter case, like I said, they're your eggs, do what you like.

Throwing practical elements into the decision above changes it drastically, I think; as I understand it the egg extraction procedure is not as easy, pleasant, or harmless as the analogous procedure for men. Thus the compensation rate of $4000 per egg. (The ads on the BART offer $5000, but maybe that's just the high Bay Area prices.)

As for ways the research can go horribly wrong: surely a law that drew a line between the good and bad cloning research, however fine, would still be far less complicated than our tax code. I think we can manage to legislate this issue to deter unethical outcomes while still allowing the useful research.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | February 12, 2004 6:20 PM
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