The Lame Shall Walk

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A 37-year-old South Korean woman who had been paralyzed from the waist down for 19 years is now walking. How? They implanted stem cells into her spine, and they were able to take over for the no-longer-working cells that were failing to do their job. They'd previously tried by injecting stem cells into the spinal fluid, but it didn't work. This did.

So does this vindicate the Kerry-Edwards proposal to expand government funding for embryonic stem cell research, which California has already now done with their own state funding? Well, look at the fine print. It turns out this wasn't from embryonic stem cells at all. These are cord blood stem cells. The only people who will have moral objections to using those are Jehovah's Witnesses, who think taking something from someone else's blood into your own goes against the Torah command not to eat blood (I wonder if they eat kosher, because to be consistent they need to). This is actually an important discovery for the pro-life argument against needing embryonic stem cells for this kind of thing. There's still greater potential for embryonic cells if the overcome the biggest obstacle to using them at all, which there's been no progress on, but cord blood stem cells do in fact work for this sort of thing, so I don't know how embryonic stem cell advocates can see this as anything more than a mixed result for them.

Incidentally, I tried to see if the major news outlets were covering this. A Google search turned up a Korean paper, another paper excerpting the Korean paper and then linking to the rest of it, and some irrelevant stuff. I didn't go very far in, but that's bad news. Then I tried CNN. I searched for Korea "stem cell" and Korea "stem cells". They have nothing on it. A search of the Foxnews site led to a link to Yahoo story I linked above but nothing else. I couldn't find anything at ABC, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Los Angeles Times. I hope they're not deliberately not burying such an important story.

The CBS news website just has a video of one of their broadcasts but no text story. Along with this story, they show the results of a similar operation in China that involved stem cells from an aborted fetus, and in that case it restored feeling to someone's legs but nothing else yet. I got the sense that the point of the CBS clip was to show how restrictive (their word) U.S. policy is, but nothing in any U.S. policy prevents the operation that took place in Korea, and if they had used stem cells that weren't acquired via an abortion, the other one wouldn't have been either (use of embryonic cells is legal, just not government-funded except in CA). It's just that there aren't doctors doing that research here yet, at least not at that level.


I'm surprised that this didn't make mainstream news -- I heard about it through two diametrically opposed email newsletters, the Texas Freedom Network and Tony Perkins' Washington Update. Predictably, Perkins made basically the same point you did, and TFN glossed over the issue of what sort of stem cells were at work.

You're right, of course -- this news doesn't particularly vindicate us, who support embroyonic stem cell research. But for someone like me, I don't feel like the view is in particular need of vindication; embroyonic stem cells *might* cure important things, or might just lead to useful -- or even merely interesting -- scientific advancement, and that's a perfectly good reason to use them.

I guess arguments like the one that doesn't apply here might be important for a supporter of this research who believes that embroyos have moral worth, and that destroying them is, ceteris paribus, morally wrong. That person would need to justify destroying embroyos with good evidence that in the end, more good will come of it. But I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone endorse that combination of views.

This ended up being a more interesting comment than I thought it'd be. I think I'll go make it a post on my blog.

Oh, anyone who is generally pro-life but thinks killing is ok in the Sophie's Choice case (e.g. Laurence Thomas, professor of philosophy at Syracuse, fits that description, as do a couple graduate students I know) might hold a view like the one you mentioned, and those who think embryos have rights but to a much lesser degree than adults or children might say something like that too. There are lots of those people. The majority of Americans probably either think embryos are persons (or don't realize that their other views require this) or think they have no rights whatsoever, but the minority who don't fall into those two camps isn't as small as you think. I've encountered a number of people like that.

I said that TFN carried this story. I just checked my inbox, and I seem to just have a false memory about it. It looks like they didn't mention it at all. My mistake.

I wonder why the article you linked to suggests that umbilical cord stem cells are a "safe alternative" to embryonic stem cells. The former have been used effectively for years in a variety of therapies while the latter remain a "potential" with ethical dilemas.

Jeremy, if people do hold that position, then I guess this type of argument is important and relevant, after all. My mistake.

Oh, of COURSE the media won't talk about this! It doesn't support their view of how we should handle stem-cells. They think the ONLY stem cells out there are in aborted babies, thus.. it also includes their view on abortion. B.S. Stem cells can also be gained from adults, and from the umbilical cord. This is a pretty good story. And besides.. Neckbrace Edwards said he'd have people walking from their wheelchairs if him and Lurch got elected. Well, he has only half right.
Nice blog, by the way.

Well, you're just wrong. CBS did talk about it. They just incorporated it into the narrative that that Bush's resistance to stem cells is preventing this sort of thing. It's not some devious intention of holding the truth back though, as you're suggesting. It's simply that somehow the facts that this doesn't really help the argument for embryonic stems are somehow getting lost.

What surprises me is that no one else did what CBS did. I agree that Edwards made some loony comments about this that he shouldn't have made. I respect intelligent discussion on this blog, which means I don't respect name calling. Consider yourself warned. Dealing with the argument rather than calling people who accept it derogatory names is the only way anyone might listen to you. Name-calling just makes conservatives look like jerks who won't engage with the argument.

As for the argument itself, there's something good about it. Eliminating the absolute need for embryonic stem cells does not show that using embryonic cells won't be useful. For one thing, many people think there's greater potential with embryonic cells if they can overcome the one obstacle they've so far encountered to getting them to take. They can't do that unless they can do research on them, which of course they're doing, even in this country and not just in California, but there's only federal funding for the already-existing lines (which isn't nothing, but people want to see more because of the great potential here).

What Jonathan is saying is that those who don't have any ethical problems with destroying embryos for cells will not consider these cases evidence against doing so. The argument against using them relies on two premises they won't grant. One is that there are genuine moral problems with using embryonic stem cells, at least when it requires destroying embryos to get them. The second is that we should respect the fact that many people do object on ethical grounds, even if we don't agree.

What's good about Jonathan's argument is that his conclusion follows if he doesn't accept these two premises. What I think is bad about his argument is that I don't accept either premise. That's why I engaged with his argument rather than using derogatory names to describe the most prominent public officials who have proposed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research beyond the existing lines that Bush has funded.

I'm not sure what you meant by their being half right. His statement was true if it's what logicians call the material conditional. They didn't get elected, so it's vacuously true. Of course, I'm not sure conditionals in English are like that, so I wonder if the sentence is either just plain false or neither true nor false. In neither case is it true or half true.

In some three-valued logics, a conditional with a false antecedent would get the extra value, which you might call "half true" if you felt like it.

Of course, I'm not sure conditionals in English are like that either.

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