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Nov 1, 2011

Stem cells + Vatican = ???

I was driving to my hotel today and I heard this story on NPR. Whenever the Vatican and stem cells are mentioned in a sentence, I sort of perk up with my morally-indignant flag up, but for awhile I wasn't particularly offended. The Vatican decided to spend $1M USD on adult stem cell research (gee, maybe enough for a team of two or three scientists to spend at LEAST five, maybe even six months doing research!) So far I don't really care that much.

Then I heard this little snippet from Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist and education director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

"When we choose to take advantage of the weak for the benefit of the strong, that's the worst kind of science that we can choose to pursue," Pacholczyk says.
He says, sure, if we spend enough money, embryonic stem cells will probably lead to treatments of disease.
"But the question is not, 'Can we make it work?' " he says. "The question is, 'Should we?' Isn't this something that is so unethical that all men of goodwill should be saying, 'We need to be putting on the brakes here?' "


Talk about poisoning the well here! "All men of goodwill" (not women? Curious.) should be agreeing with him?

Wow! I just can't believe the gall of this guy.


Here's the thing, folks. Embryonic stem cell research does not mean they tap little babies brain stems in their cradles or aborted fetuses in test tubes, "Matrix-style", although that's apparently the image that Pacholczyk wants you to take away from the sounds of it.

The embryos in question are actually blastocysts. They are about the size of a pin head. When the stem cells are extracted, the blastocyst is typically destroyed in normal operating procedure. Here's a picture:

http://www.advancedfertility.com/blastocystimages.htm

Could you pick out which part of that thing would become a fetus if you didn't read the figure caption? I sure as hell couldn't.

So on to the argument. Never mind the fact that if those blastocysts aren't harvested for creating stem cells, they're literally discarded as medical waste, because they're byproducts of in-vitro fertilization. This consideration of course makes the entire question completely irrelevant in my opinion, but let's ignore that fact.

The ultimate question here is, do you think that little group of a hundred or so cells constitutes a person with rights to be protected? I can't think of a single scientific or secular argument to say that it is, by any stretch of the imagination, but Taddy thinks he does (we'll get to that in a minute). By secular standards, that group of a hundred-ish cells has no more rights than the millions of cells you blow in a wad of gooey bodily fluids onto a tissue every time you blow your... nose. (Stay with me people). It's only by religious standards that this group of a dozen-ish cells has any rights at all.

Now, let's pose for the sake of argument that you actually did think that those cells constituted a person. Of course you'd be fairly miffed about people being dismembered for scientific research. That's your prerogative, but you'd have no evidence for that in any secular standpoint and would have to resort to religiously-based justification. But if we go that route, you could also argue that since a cow or a chicken or a beetle or a tree or a potato is also sacrosanct to a Jain, eating potatoes is "so unethical that all men of goodwill should be saying, 'We need to be putting on the brakes here'"?

I'll venture that most of you will say "no".

What's different between the two religious beliefs? One believes that a blastocyst is a person. The other believes the potatoes for your dinner are people (and so are the yeast cells in the beer next to them). Neither are supported by evidence.

So why is it that Pacholczyk is blind to this argument? I mean, he's an educated guy. He's got a PhD in neuroscience and a seminarian degree. He is (or maybe was, I have no idea) a practicing scientist. But here's some if his other arguments about this:

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/medical_ethics/me0116.htm

The magisterium of the Church has never definitively stated when the ensoulment of the human embryo takes place... That being said, the moral teaching of the Church is that the human embryo must be treated as if it were already ensouled, even if it might not yet be so. It must be treated as if it were a person from the moment of conception, even if there exists the theoretical possibility that it might not yet be so... We must recognize that it is God's business as to precisely when He ensouls embryos. We do not need an answer to this fascinating and speculative theological question, like counting angels on the head of a pin, in order to grasp the fundamental truth that human embryos are inviolable and deserving of unconditional respect at every stage of their existence. Rather, this moral affirmation follows directly on the heels of the scientific data regarding early human development, which affirms that every person on the face of the planet is, so to speak, an “overgrown embryo”.

Well now, let's take a look at that. His argument is that we have to treat an embryo as a person, because an embryo may become a person. What? It may be a person in the future, so let's treat it as a person now? Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone? Maybe this guy is a neuroscientist, but he sure isn't a logician, because that is one hell of a fallacy!

Let's ignore that one though, and give ol' Taddy the benefit of the doubt that he really meant that we just have no business doing that because God said so. At least it's not a logical fallacy (not that that means much). But let's go back to our Jain buddies. I can just as easily say

We must recognize that it is God's business as to whether or potatoes have a soul. We do not need an answer to this fascinating and speculative theological question, like counting angels on the head of a pin, in order to grasp the fundamental truth that potatoes are inviolable and deserving of unconditional respect at every stage of their existence.

Here's the thing, Taddy. Not all of us believe in your religion, the same as you don't believe in Jainism. You don't ridicule the Jains, and I'm not ridiculing you, but at the same time, I wouldn't expect you to stop eating french fries because the Jains thought that they may contain a soul, and likewise, you shouldn't expect scientists to not perform potentially life-saving research on discarded blastocysts that are by-products of in-vitro fertilization. To me, they're the same argument, but some of us make the decision based on the amount of verifiable information at our disposal. That isn't a character flaw, so don't paint it as such.

2 comments:

Bretta said...

I believe my first daughter's soul, if there is such a thing, did not enter her body until a couple of weeks before her birth. I had several experiences during the pregnancy that I think support the conclusion - but mainly, she was born with so many problems, that IMO, her soul knew her life would be a "hard row to hoe" and so delayed taking possession.

That said, I disagree that every embryo becomes a viable adult organism, or even that all are meant to: a salmon may lay a million eggs, and all get fertilized. Many become food before hatching, many more don't make it out to sea, still more are prey in the sea prior to their return to the river that spawned them; less than three percent return to spawn the next generation.

Shripathi Kamath said...

My soul for a cappuccino!

Catholics and Bioethics, they rhyme, but have NOTHING in common. Preying on the weak is all they do. Probably why they want to hold on to a monopoly.