Thursday, May 26, 2005

first post on stem cell research

For this next post, I probably should provide some views of my philosophy and politics. You could say I’m pretty much a fiscal conservative / social liberal. I believe in fiscally sound policies with liberal views on how people live and behave. I am a registered Democrat, but more or less align myself to the center-left of the political spectrum. I did vote for John Kerry in the last election.

Two issues that have come up in the last couple of weeks have been the judicial filibusters and the stem cell research. For stem cell research, I approve of federal funding for the lab research. Unfortunately, the evangelists, the Republican Party and President Bush oppose it. I know there is a lot of flack going on in the debate between the Religious Right—who have gained enormous power and influence in the Republican Party and the White House--and about half of the country. There is no compromise for the Religious Right on stem cell research—or for any views. Their plan is to shove their religious views through legislation down everyone’s throat, whether they believe in it or not. I don’t like it. I don’t like when such a group has this much power and control in Congress, the Presidency, and quite possibly the Supreme Court.

I wish there was a way to provide serious compromise on the stem cell debate. I want the lab research to go on and hopefully provide cures to some of humanities deadliest diseases. I don’t subscribe to the idea that these human embryos being held frozen in fertility labs are fully human. They are a group of cells that have the potential to become human, once they are fertilized, implanted in a woman’s womb, and the pregnancy is carried to full term where the baby is born. These cells should not have the legal rights in our society that you or I have. The real danger now is that once these evangelists shove these laws down our throats and that our research labs are starved of funds for stem cell research, the monies and scientific talents are going overseas to countries which have no legal limits based on theology. South Korea has gone ahead and created the first human clone in the lab. Their research is now ahead of whatever we can create—and their going to get more money and talent to forge farther ahead in the field than the United States. The evangelists like to claim the U.S. is sliding down a slippery slope on stem cell research, and they’re right. Only problem is that the slippery slope is that our medical research is falling behind to other countries, which will cause our economy to fall behind. The United States will become a Third World banana theocracy if we allow this to continue.

So lets find a common ground. There are plenty of frozen embryos just sitting there in storage in the fertility clinics. These embryos were to be used for in vito fertilization for couples, and once the couples have had their babies, the embryos are no longer needed. Do we end up destroying them? That would violate the Religious Right’s ‘culture of life’ viewpoint. Of course, the fertility clinics will have to do something with the old embryos from previous clients who no longer need them to make room to store new embryos for new clients. The clinics can’t just keep adding storage tanks for embryos—that would increase the fixed costs for their business. Do we just leave them there in storage forever? They are never going to become human beings anyway. I’m not trying to be callous here, but I do want to find a better way to resolve this issue. I would suggest that when couples wish to use the services of these fertility clinics, they would have to sign a form stating what they wish to be done with their unused embryos. If they wish to have them destroyed, then they can be destroyed. If they wish to donate the embryos for stem cell research, the embryos would be donated for research. If they wish to continue storing the embryos for future in vitro fertilizations by the couple, then the clinic would store the embryos for a nominal storage fee charged to the couple. This would allow the individual or couples to decide for them what to do with the old embryos based on their own moral and religious views. It would give them the right to choose. As with any previously stored embryos, the clinics would contact the couples that have donated them and ask them what they would like to have done with their old embryos. Those couples would have to decide what to do with the old embryos. And if they wish to keep them in their frozen state, they will have to pay a storage fee. They would have to take responsibility for paying to have the embryos stored by the clinic. If the couples do not accept responsibility for those embryos, then the couples waive their rights regarding the stored embryos to the clinics. The clinics would then have the right to choose what to do with the old embryos—whether to continue storing them, destroy them, or give them to research. If the clinics give the embryos to research facilities, this could provide new cell lines for research, and certainly improve our technologies and medical research facilities. I would permit whatever lab research is necessary, but I would be opposed to taking a cloned human embryo and inserting it into a woman’s womb to carry it to a full term pregnancy with a baby being born.

The evangelists and Religious Right may claim that stem cells are a moral or a religious issue, but they are wrong. It is not about morality. It is about property rights. When a baby is first born, the custody of that baby is given to its parents. A social contract is created between the baby and the parents. The parents accept responsibility to feed, clothe, and care for the baby or child, until the child’s 18th birthday. In return for the parent’s care of the child, the child accepts responsibility to abide by whatever rules the parent has determined to place within that family unit of society, until the child’s 18th birthday. Once a child turns 18, the child becomes an individual contributing member of society with the full legal rights and responsibilities that society gives to every other member (The only exception to this rule in American society is the right to purchase and drink alcoholic beverages, where the legal age is 21). But before that child’s 18th birthday, the child is theoretically the property of the parents. If the parents cannot accept the responsibility of this social contract, then a legal guardian is selected by the state, or the child is put up for adoption, or the child becomes the responsibility of the state until that child’s 18th birthday. So in effect, the child becomes the legal property of the parents or a guardian until the child’s 18th birthday. And as the property of the parents or guardian, the child must abide by the rules that the guardian makes within the family unit under the overall society. The child does have certain legal rights under society, where the parents or guardian may not physically abuse the child, or perform sex with the child. But overall, this is a property right’s issue, although society does not specifically call it property rights. It is called the family.

So what are the property rights of embryonic stem cells? In one respect, the embryos are harvested from a woman’s ovaries in a fertility clinic so that the woman can become pregnant and bear a child. The embryos came from a woman’s ovaries, so therefore the property rights of those embryos reside with the woman who provided those embryos. The problem is that those embryos, which are harvested by the fertility clinic, can only exist outside of a woman’s womb using specialized equipment to freeze and store the embryos, which is expensive to purchase and maintain. An individual woman or a couple which chooses in vitro fertilization would not have the economic resources to store the extra embryos for future pregnancies after the first pregnancy is successfully achieved. Fertility clinics have the resources to purchase and maintain this equipment to freeze and store embryos, but they do not have the property rights to own these embryos. And since they do not have the property rights to own these embryos or to use these embryos for their own economic self-interest, they should not have the sole responsibility to maintain these embryos within their frozen state indefinitely. And yet, they are required to expend their own resources to store these embryos indefinitely—especially if the Religious Right is successful in legally identifying embryos as being human with the destruction of these embryos equating to murder. The key here is to provide a property value to an embryo, then establish a contractual system where the rights of this property can be transferred. So a woman goes to a fertility clinic for in vitro fertilization. She becomes pregnant and successfully gives birth to a healthy baby. The other embryos, which the clinic harvested in case the first pregnancy failed, becomes the property of the woman. She may store them at the clinic and be charged for a storage fee. She may order the clinic to destroy the embryos. She may donate the embryos for stem cell research. Or she may contractually release the ownership of the embryos to the clinic, where the clinic may use the embryos for its own economic self-interest. The Religious Right may argue that assigning property values to an embryo is akin to enslavement, but I disagree. An embryo is not a human being; therefore an embryo cannot be enslaved.

There are certain traits that make a human being as human. First, a human being must be able to live outside of a woman’s womb. It does not need a woman’s womb to exist or survive. In other words, there is not biological relationship between the mother and the baby. The baby does not feed off the mother’s life. When a baby is born, that baby is a separate life entity—a living, breathing life form outside of the mother’s biological life form. Theoretically, it does not need the mother to survive. It will, however, need the whole of society to help it survive and grow. The baby could be born from its mother, and then given to the father. The father can feed the baby with formula, clothe it, and care for it. Or the baby can be born, and then given to foster parents, or put up for adoption, or be placed in an orphanage where the state will care for it. The baby can grow up to become a functioning member of society. An embryonic stem cell cannot survive outside of a mother’s womb. It cannot grow up to become a functioning member of society outside of the mother’s womb. It must have that symbiotic biological relationship between the mother and the cells in order to advance from basic stem cells, to the specialized cells that make up parts of the human body. In other words, the mother’s own body biologically feeds and cares for the embryo. Society does have the capability to remove the embryos and store them using advanced technology, but the cells are placed in a limbo where they will never grow or advance. In order for the embryonic stem cells to grow, they must be fertilized, placed in a woman’s womb (It doesn’t have to be the mother, but rather a woman who can bear children), and the pregnancy goes through its full term where a baby is born. The second thing that makes a human is simply cognitive reasoning. Humans have the ability to think and reason in abstract terms. Even a baby has that ability to think and reason in a similar way and to communicate that reasoning. When a baby is hungry, or needs its diaper changed, it will communicate its wants by crying. At first, the parents may not be able to differentiate the baby’s wants with its crying—they may try to feed the baby when the baby doesn’t want to be fed, but rather be changed or held. Pretty soon, the baby will realize that different types of crying will provide different types of wants—one type of cry will provide feeding, while another type of cry will provide a diaper change. A baby will also learn how a different parent’s facial expression will convey different emotions. This is really the start of reasoning and communication between the baby and its parents. Embryonic stem cells do not have the ability to reason, nor do embryonic stem cells have the ability to communicate any wants or needs outside of the limited existence of those cells. It is simply a cluster of cells. These cells have the potential to become a human being, but they are not human. If in my opinion, they are not human, how can they be enslaved?

This has been a fairly long posting on stem cell research, getting into some minute arguments on stem cells. There are so many moral, religious, and philosophical arguments to the issue, that it is impossible to declare it black and white, right or wrong, good or evil. It is an issue with so many different shadings and gradations of differing gray areas. The Religious Right likes to think in simple black-and-white terms where they are right and good, and everyone else is wrong and evil. I don’t buy that argument. For stem cell research, we have got to find some middle ground, which reflects the interests of both sides. I would even venture to say that if the Religious Right believes that embryos are human beings, well then let’s give all the frozen embryos to whatever Religious Right organization that wants them, and let the Religious Right pay for economic costs of storing them. And if the Religious Right cannot pay the economic costs of storing these human embryos, then the Religious Right can only blame themselves for ‘murdering’ humans.

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