Bioethics: November 2007 Archives

On Tuesday several news sources announced a new technique to derive stem cells that seem to be just like embryonic stem cells, except that it can come directly from any adult cell (at least that's how I understand what they've done). If this is all it claims to be, then there does seem to be no need to derive embryonic stem cells from any method that kills an embryo. It's unsurprising that pro-life groups feel vindicated in their claim that we needn't pursue methods that are ethically controversial to get this benefit, and CNN recognizes this in an article yesterday.

What baffles me is that they've sought to present this as if both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate feel vindicated. They even have a quote from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to that effect:

Our top researchers recognize that this new development does not mean that we should discontinue studying embryonic stem cells," he said in a written statement. "Scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. We need to continue to pursue all alternatives as we search for treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries.

He added that Tuesday's announcement "reiterates the need for federal support for medical research and again points out the president's misplaced priorities in vetoing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill which included a substantial increase for the National Institutes of Health."

Now if he'd only said the first part, I wouldn't necessarily have any problem. I might disagree with his assumption that human beings at such an early stage have no moral status, but I wouldn't complain about his point. Someone seems to have achieved something that could accomplish what advocates of destroying human organisms for stem cells had wanted to do but without destroying any human organisms. But it's possible that that's not true.

As Russell Korobkin points out, it's still necessary to investigate whether these cells have all the features people want in embryonic stem cells and whether they will have negative features that will prevent their use (e.g. like the cancers in all the embryonic cells, although I have to point out that their presence wouldn't make this any worse than what we've got with embryonic stem cells). It's also still worth thinking through exactly what's going on here to see if it does raise any ethical objections. I certainly haven't done that.

Nevertheless, here is what you cannot rationally do. When someone presents something that at worst does not confirm your position and at best undermines it significantly, you do not present it as vindication of your view. This research may well show that it's completely unnecessary to destroy human embryos for what we might have wanted them for. Senator Harkin has been proposing federal funding to destroy human embryos. If this research is what people are saying it is, then it may well remove any need to do what so many question without sacrificing any consequences. The fact that this may not turn out to be what it's been claimed to be does not vindicate Senator Harkin's position. At best (for him), all it does is not confirm the opposing position that there will be better ways to do what Harkin wants. Not confirming your opponent's position is not vindication of your own position. The non-existence of Santa Claus doesn't confirm his opponents' position on this issue, but it would be crazy to suggest that it confirms support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's simply irrelevant. Well, so is the failure of a proposed method for producing similar cells. And this isn't the failure of such a method anyway. It's the announcement of what seems like a strong possibility of non-failure in one such method.

So I would encourage the author of the CNN piece and Senator Harkin to pay a little more attention to what counts as vindicating a thesis. The way the piece reads, and the way Harkin's statement comes across, it sounds as if it's ok to ignore a positive movement toward confirming one view as if it also moves positively toward confirming the opposite view. It's fine to say that you don't know if it really does confirm that view, but don't pretend it somehow confirms the opposite view when there's no reason to think it possibly could do so.

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