Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work with stem cells.  Apparently, he's found a way to create stem cells without using embryonic stem cells.  This is a good thing because it avoids some of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells.  Whether or not you feel there are moral implications in the use of stem cells isn't that important.  Allowing the scientists to do their job without the political battles, religious leaders butting in, and people weighing in on all the issues except the actual research is much better for everyone but the philosophers from an efficiency stand point.

But this article in Slate which talks about the moral relief that Dr. Yamanaka's brings to that area of science raises some good points and ignores some others.  One, is obviously the troublesome issues surrounding using embryonic stem cells can be avoided.  There's no longer any good reason to not fund this research.

One of the things I think it ignores is that stem cell research was the only reason anyone talked about the destruction, or preservation, of the embryos from artificial insemination.  Personally, I don't really have an opinion about any of these embryos one way the other, but the moral certitude that the Christian right approaches stem cell research was always blatantly hypocritical when they weren't equally as aggressive about artificial insemination.  No one really wants to talk about those embryos b/c who wants to rain on the parade of someone who's trying so hard to have a child.  So, the issues surrounding those embryos, how many should they keep, what should they do with the unused ones, etc, is now probably going to be ignored.

The other issue that I think is important is about moral equivalencies.  If various embryos, blastocysts, or collections of cells have the same moral standing of a child, then wouldn't a stem cell also have some moral worth, regardless of its origin.  If we are using the potential of a collection of cells as a determinant of personhood, why would the origin matter.  If we are using the genetic code, then even a dead skin cell could have moral worth.  So what are the criteria we're using for personhood?  Stem cell research was really the only serious place this discussion was taking place b/c the lines are so firmly drawn on abortion.

So, what he's done is a huge accomplishment, but the chances that a serious conversation about these moral questions remain in the spotlight are nil.  But the fact that there won't be the conversation means the scientists can actually get some work done.


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