Human Exceptionalism

Human Embryos as a Planted Corn Crop

Remember in the early days of the embryonic stem cell debate being repeatedly assured that “all” the scientists wanted were ”leftover embryos due to be destroyed anyway” (from IVF) for use research?

It was always baloney. “The scientists” just wanted to get people used to destroying embryos as if they were a mere corn crop.

Now that human cloning has succeeded, “the scientists” are ready to move on in a more energetic manner to explicitly creating embryos for use and destruction in research–and they want government funding, meaning submitting to the appearance of “meaningful” regulatory control to get past predictable opposition to taxpayers paying for harvesting the corn. 

Hence, a piece in Nature–one of the worlds’ two most important science journals–urging the regulation of what we could call planting embryo crops. From, “Regulate Embryos Made for Research,” by Insoo Hyun:

This repeated cloning of embryos and generation of stem cells, now using cells collected from adults, increases the likelihood that human embryos will be produced to generate therapy for a specific individual. The creation of more human embryos for scientific experiments is certain. Regulatory structures must be in place to oversee it.

Remember Wesley’s Law on Biotechnology. They never agree to prevent what can be done, only prohibit what can’t yet be done. Once the science advances, they change the rules to permit what can now be done, and start again. Hence:

For some, this raises two dangerous spectres: cloned human babies, and a future in which human embryos are callously created and destroyed for various kinds of research. Both scenarios can be avoided. Current policies (and probable biological barriers) are sufficient to mitigate the first. The second can be headed off by adding a provision to existing oversight structures.

“Callously created?” It’s what is done that matters morally, not whether one bows in respect to the Petri dish before doing it.

And note, the objections to “reproductive cloning”–a misnomer since the only cloning is making the embryo–and other novel methods of creating embryos involve “safety”primarily, and secondarily, worries about getting on the wrong side of the “symbolic value” the public accords human embryos.

But the very research that would be validated as “moral” via explicit legalization and regulation would be the necessary predicate to making it possible to do those supposedly objectionable procedures “safe,” at which point Wesley’s Law would kick in again.

What to do? What is always proposed: Allow research committees to rubber stamp validate the ethics of research projects:

In the absence of NIH funds (and concomitant ethical guidelines) the US National Academy of Sciences recommended that every organization performing research on embryonic stem cells establish a dedicated review committee and require scientists to submit relevant protocols for its approval before proceeding with experiments. Academic institutes and even for-profit companies voluntarily did so. These committees, which are still in place, seem well suited to assess the creation of research embryos.

But this would seem to be primarily a matter of prioritizing, rather than setting meaningful moral limits never to be violated. Thus Hyun concludes:

Barriers to obtaining eggs will limit the production of embryos for less-than-cutting-edge research. But it is important to review specifically whether the questions that a custom-made embryo could help to answer justify its creation.

Sorry. I don’t trust scientists to impose any reasonable limits on each other. Moreover, industry self-regulation is merely an “appearance” of control as a sap to the public. For example, the UK’s embryo “never say no” Embryo Authority authorized the use of animal eggs in human cloning research). 

Beyond that, the appearance of meaningful self-regulation would make it thereby easier to convince lawmakers and regulators to open the spigot to public funding.

No! Wesley’s Law needs to be repealed. That will require the legal prohibition on the creation of human embryos for destruction–as currently the law in Germany–whether by fertilization or cloning. Where that can’t be achieved due to Big Biotech’s special interest power, never permit public funding.

Bottom line: This issue is too important to just “let the scientists decide.”

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