Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stem cells and the futility of pandering to dogma.

I've yet to see a good argument as to why one can't harvest embryos for stem cells. On a related note, though, this shows why it's not worth trying to reason one's way around the inherently unreasonable. The article describes the process by which a group of scientists recently managed to create embryonic stem cells by taking a biopsy from an embryo, rather than harvesting an embryo outright. Note this:
Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "We still don't know the dangers of taking a biopsy from an early stage embryo, whether it has any effect on the baby's future development. On paper it looks like an ethical solution, but that requires the biopsy to be completely harmless."
In other words, we have no evidence whatsoever that the biopsy is harmful, but because it might be, this is still not a good solution. A second example, same article (emphasis added):
Prof [Peter] Braude [of ob/gyn in King's College London] said he doubted whether the controversy could be avoided by the American breakthrough. "We don't undertake embryo biopsy willy-nilly, as it is better not to remove a cell from a developing embryo unless one really has to," he said. "I certainly cannot see why one would wish to try and remove a cell from a healthy embryo with such low odds of developing a stem line from it when many thousands of useful cells are harvested from a baby's placenta at birth, if one needed to do it. Equally, I'm not persuaded by arguments that this is a more ethical way of getting stem cell lines, as it is not impossible that biopsy compromises the developing embryo from which one removes the cell."
Again, since there's a non-zero probability of harming the embryo, this is still a poor solution. (As an ethical principle, this is crap, incidentally. If a zero probability of harm is required before one acts, then one will never act.)

There's no pleasing the dogmatic; I really wonder how long rational people will continue to try.


Anonymous said...

What do you think about water fluoridation, mercury amalgam fillings, conventionally grown foods (pesticide residues, run-off, and worker exposure), genetically modified foods, vaccinations, and other cases in which there is a non-zero probability of harming people (actually more like a 100% probability of harming -someone-). Should one weigh the benefits and the harms? What about forcing these things on large groups of people?

You may have heard of these things as eco-extremist scares, but the harms they impose are quite real and certainly downplayed. The only one I'm not sure of is genetically modified foods - could be that they really aren't that harmful.

(Yeah, this is a topic I have always have to bring up - because I have a mouth full of mercury, have to drink bottled water to avoid fluoride, and buy expensive organic food to avoid pesticides. To top it off, I was diagnosed with IBS by mainstream medicine before I finally found out about celiac sprue - there is a LOT wrong with mainstream medical science.)

ADHR said...

The question about whether to enact these kinds of things as broad social policies is complex. Something like counting noses seems right, but counting noses within side-constraints. (Nothing like a strict act-utilitarian calculus, for example.) So, it can't be a straight benefits-harms comparison; it also can't be a search for a guarantee of no harm (for, as you point out, everything harms someone, sooner or later). There's a whole branch of philosophy devoted to figuring out where to draw that line.

The question of whether people are "forced" is also complex. Generally, you're considered to be forced to do something if you have no choice. But it seems that, in the cases you cite, there is choice. You can drink bottled water. You don't have to get fillings -- you can just live with the toothache (or get the tooth pulled, for that matter). You can buy organic, or grow your own. You don't have to get vaccinations (but it should be kept in mind that if you don't, you may be exposing others to harm). (GM foods are indeed a bit of an exception, since there's no demonstrated harms or benefits peculiar to them, that I'm aware of. That is, we know factory farms are quite bad; what's not clear is that GM food from factory farms is worse.) So, insofar as one has a choice about these things, then one isn't "forced" into them.

This brings up a whole issue surrounding the poor, of course, but the poor are generally forced to do a lot of things. So, that gets into a much broader issue.

Mainstream medicine is not perfect, no, but it's better than the alternative. (Which is unproven and, very often, pure woo.)