Monday, November 22, 2004

Arguing with Myself

It was a few weeks back that I was reading Nature and an article got me thinking about human embryonic stem cells. Some researchers in Chicago managed to derive stem cells from a 4-day old embryo, a first in the field. Previously the earliest one could manage this was around the 6-day mark. The natural question is “What is the significance?”

What I think is significant about it is that is a step closer to being able to derive human embryonic stem cells without destroying the growing embryo. Ethically and scientifically I think it would be a great achievement to be able to derive embryonic without destruction of the embryo. Most interesting in my mind though is would it become nationally acceptable to use government money for human embryonic stem cells if the destruction of the embryo was not necessary. It would seem to me that it is the destruction of the embryo that is the most troubling aspect to people who oppose human embryonic stem cell research. If one could get embryonic cells early enough that normal development could occur (identical twins are the product of a single embryo after all), what is the harm?

In the end though, what is done with the embryo even if it can survive? If it is not implanted it will never mature to being a fetus (barring some significant advances a la Brave New World). If it becomes ethically acceptable because the embryo is not destroyed, but the embryo/fetus/baby will never be born without serious interventions then what were we debating about all along? This troubles me deeply.

When I tried to talk to Ellie about it she got rather upset, as she’s very much opposed to human embryonic stem cell research. I hadn’t expected her reaction; I thought that if the embryo wasn’t destroyed she wouldn’t find it an unacceptable idea. Instead I got an earful, but also a valuable insight. She told me she felt that the cells belonged to the embryo, an idea that I hadn’t considered. The idea that the genetic material should belong to that embryo was new to me, but now I see it as important.

I think it raises a different prospect if we take the ethical high road and say the embryonic tissue belongs to that individual from which it was derived. If fertilization occurs in vitro, I’m of the opinion that it would be acceptable to bank embryonic cells much like we bank cord blood today (which we briefly considered for Alexandra before we saw the astronomical cost), as long as it didn’t damage the embryo and the use of the stem cells derived was left entirely to the individual from which they came.

Of course all my ethical pondering at this point is moot. Scientists still can’t derive human embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo, so it’s all science fiction I suppose.

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