One More Time with the Stem Cells

Okay, John, you’ve made a liar out of me. I said that I had written my last word about the issue, but that was then; this is now. I appreciated the Jonathan Alter quotes you posted below. He’s fair and balanced enough to include some valid criticism of the pro- side and he generally avoids condescension (though labeling his opponents “anti-cure” probably crosses the line). However, his arguments do nothing to negate my objections. He says, “The second argument made by opponents is that non-controversial adult-stem-cell research is so promising that there’s no need to mess with embryos. This is contrary to the principle of science, which is that you move ahead with all reasonable approaches because there’s no telling what will work.” Notice the word “reasonable.” There’s the rub. I forget what it’s called in logic, but I think he just assumed the point he’s trying to prove. I don’t care how pragmatic and useful and promising any kind of research might be, if it’s morally and ethically wrong, I’m against it. That’s the very nub of our disagreement: whether it is “reasonable,” i.e. morally defensible, to destroy human embryos for the benefit of the already-born. Granted, it is not a glaringly black-and-white question. I see the shades of gray, but the issue (as well as its potential for unintended negative consequences) raises enough qualms in my mind that I come down on the side of caution.

In an earlier comment exchange on this issue, you said that I’m the one on the slippery slope because my position taken to its logical extreme would agree with the Italian government’s, which says that every embryo created has to be implanted. Actually, that idea doesn’t bother me as much you might think. When Randy and I were going through our infertility ordeal, the doctor suggested hormone treatments to increase my ovulation. We tried the relatively benign Clomid and when that didn’t work, the doctor suggested Pergonal. He warned us that Pergonal works so well, a woman often becomes pregnant with multiple embryos, and then the doctor must perform what is euphemistically called a “thinning-out” process to destroy all but one or two, so the mother can safely deliver at least one baby. Randy and I took very little time to decide that we didn’t want to go there. So I’m pretty much already at the bottom of that slope. The whole idea of creating “surplus” embryos makes my skin crawl, even while I acknowledge the understandable and overwhelming desire of couples to conceive and bear their own children.

As you know, Randy and I chose to adopt, and on that issue, Mr. Alter is vastly misinformed. There is no “large constituency” of infants available for adoption. He’s conflating the number of older children in need of homes with the much smaller number of available newborns, for whom adoptive parents are waiting in line. Maybe there was “federal funding and intense outreach” to promote the idea of embryo adoption, but if so, they need to hire a new ad agency. I had only vaguely heard of it before we started this little back-and-forth. Maybe interest will grow now with the exposure President Bush has given the Snowflakes organization.

I also question his last statement, that “no lab that receives federal financing can take part in embryonic-stem-cell research.” I haven’t done enough research to refute him, but I did read this in the Wall Street Journal:
“No fewer than 11 private stem-cell research centers exist across the country; Harvard alone employs more than 100 researchers and has 17 new stem-cell lines. More than 60 U.S. and international companies are pursuing stem-cell research–from such giants as Johnson & Johnson to start-ups. In 2005, the venture-capital industry put more than $102 million into the stem-cell industry. All of this casts doubt on the claim that America is “losing” quality researchers to other countries for lack of funding.”

Anyway, as usual, you and I will have to agree to disagree. I have little hope of changing your mind and nothing you’ve said has changed mine, although the process of thinking about your ideas and putting my thoughts into coherent sentences has been immensely valuable. For that, as well as many other things, I thank you.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “One More Time with the Stem Cells

  1. margaret, you just hit a big red hot sensitive spot for me.

    “conflating” the precious newborns with those throwaway older children no one wants… do you understand the implications of that phrase for someone who has worked with those kids?

    if you’re broadly in favor of changing the culture enough to make embryos valuable human lives how is it even possible to discount the value of actual living children in such an offhand fashion? while we are encouraging people not to discard embryos (or have abortions?) how about also encouraging infertile couples to adopt children who desperately need homes?

    i don’t understand the stem cell debate. i think it is brain candy for people who don’t want to tackle econimic and social inequality. who can afford expensive fertility treatments? well its mostly not the lower 80% of the population…

    embryos are easy to care about. they are abstract concepts. real children in the foster care system are too messy and difficult for most people to risk feeling too passionately about.

  2. I wondered when I wrote that line whether it might be interpreted the way you took it. Now I’m sorry I left it in there that way (in an effort to avoid going off-topic). I do have a heart for all the older kids who drop between the cracks of an indequate foster care system. Any suggestions on how to encourage infertile couples (or anyone else for that matter) to adopt older children? Believe me, I have wrestled with this question. Since my husband and I adopted an infant, it may be that I’m as heartless as you suppose, but that decision was not arrived at easily. Again, I’m sorry I gave the impression that older kids are less important and deserving of homes and love than babies.

  3. actually, its really not you- its the culture/society/whatever you call it. i’m sure you, personally, made a decision that will result in a great couple raising a great kid- there’s no downside to that.

    but stem cell research is one of those things that i angrily refuse to have an opinion on. very angrily.

    as for how to encourage couples to adopt older children? it comes down to how you frame the issue. off the top of my head- first find adults who were adopted out of the foster system and are doing well. set them up as counter-examples to the steryotype of crack babies. Then talk briefly about the people who adopted and raised them as every-day type heroes (not the unreachable standard type of heroes). don’t beg parents to take in poor needy kids, encourage them to be part of something difficult, rewarding, and for the larger good.

    i hope to one day adopt in the 2-4 age range. thats old enough so you have an idea of any special problems you might face, and young enough so that traumatic memories could be expected to fade. I’d also consider a teenager, but only because I think teenagers are neat.

    my belief is that for as long as we spend our time talking about the 4 or 5 most divisive issues we’ll never recognise how close most of us are to one another on all the other issues.

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