Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Beware the Minotaur!

Looks like we might be inserting human DNA into cow embryos to get around the ethical-political obstacles to stem cell research.

The embryos created from this process would then be almost entirely “human”, with the only cow DNA being outside the cells’ nuclei.

If they manage to pull off the feat, the human-bovine embryos would not be allowed to develop for more than a few days, the researchers say.

But what if they were? Or, so what if they are? Or . . . so what if they're not? What is the actual ethical significance of curtailing the embryos' development? Depends on who you ask, I guess.

Calum MacKellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics told the BBC: "In this kind of procedure, you are mixing at a very intimate level animal eggs and human chromosomes and you may begin to undermine the whole distinction between animals and humans."

First of all, which distinction is that? The one not undermined by pervasive human barbarity toward other humans? The one holding fast in spite of human beings' wide-ranging desire to (literally) have sex with animals of all kinds? The one causing no problems for humans rationalizing eating (other) "animals" on the grounds that animals eat each other (so, we're not animals, but it's ok for non-animal humans to eat non-human animals because non-human animals eat each other; you know, cows are always dining on chicken and pig and even other cows . . . actually, they kind of are, since that's what we feed them). Sorry, mate: you're soaking in it.

Second, who says this bogus distinction ought to be preserved? For what purpose are we committed to maintaining it? In particular, for what ethical purpose? It seems to me mainly a religious holdover epitomized by Levitical prohibitions against sex with animals -- it's a category violation. Us human; them animal. Bottom line, this position amounts to the claim that God wouldn't want us to do it. And if I don't believe in (that) God, then the argument is meaningless to me.

If there's any reason to oppose this research at all, the only one I can think of is precisely the precarious condition attached to the procedure: that the embryos will only be allowed to develop for a few days. Sooner or later, and I'm betting sooner, someone's going to want to know what happens when a human-cow hybrid embryo is allowed to gestate. Given that it is fundamentally impossible to predict what will happen (although the likeliest bet is probably that the whole thing would fail to get off the proverbial ground and die as a fetus), it would be immoral to experiment with any resulting being -- including probably the resulting fetus, depending on a number of conditions.

But the whole human/animal-distinction argument is crap, and I'm tired of hearing it. Any meaningful difference between human and non-human animals is unlikely to be threatened by a human-cow hybrid. Spurious dichotomies, on the other hand, deserve to go the way of all things, anyway.

2 comments:

Autoplectic said...

There are no ethical obstacles to stem cell research. There are only political obstacles, with some of the parties to the disputes using an idiom 'called' ethics and demanding, with all sorts of histrionics, that the rest of us become as biophobic and fearful of evolutionary dynamics as they are.

Refusing the language game of ethics is a necessary first step in overcoming such useless ways of talking and writing about the issues involved..........

Egil Skallagrimsson said...

no argument. i thought about that when i added ethical to political, and your point is well taken.

it does, as always, bring us back to the problem of dealing with religion in public discourse.