Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Chimpanzee Stem Cell

A thought experiment:
The stem-cell debate had been dogging scientists. There was uncertainty over funding, supply of material, and the risk of even being arrested. Despite all the ethics committees and agreements on good practices, the denial by those who believed it an affront to human nature meant the issue was not going to go away any time soon. Contemplating moving to another country or another field of study seemed like good career moves, but there was a reason they were studying stem cells after all.

One day, a stem cell research lab had called a conference announcing that they would no longer work on human stem cells. They had developed a way of doing their research that allowed for work to continue. The process was two-fold. First they would take stem cells from a chimpanzee. Then they would reprogram these cells to have the genome contained to be identical to ours. Most genes were nearly identical to begin with, requiring only slight adjustments, and the rest were programmed artificially and cultured in bacteria. For all intents and purposes, it was identical to a human stem cell, but it wasn't human. Stem cell research could continue, but now harassed by animal welfare advocates instead of pro-lifers.

While this might be scientifically-impossible (or taking too much effort to be worthwhile), such a scenario is an interesting way to tease out just what is wrong with stem cell research. The objection that the process is destroying human life is taken right out of the equation. So we're left with what is identical to a human cell, but not derived from human cells.

Of course, this might create new objections. That science is destroying human dignity by engaging in such acts. Using chimpanzees in that way might (justifiably) spark a heated reaction. But I think the core problem is at the point of reproduction and that life begins at conception.

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