Thursday, June 21, 2007

stem cells haven't promised me anything

Some points about the 'promises' of stem cell research.

Firstly, the debate is polarised already and defined in terms of "religious ideologes" versus "scientists". The rest of us are irrlevent, apparently, and if we want a voice have to align ourselves with one or the other camp.

Second, both sides use established authority to justify themselves and to raise their profiles: scientists use 'facts', sometimes even 'proven facts', to further persuade us of their genius status. The religious worriers and affiliated politicians use 'morality', 'ethics', and their status as the called (or even the Elect? Mandated elect, in the case of politicians) to give them some kind of credibility.

The issues as I see it:
that the research will happen in the USA. Since all the Western world is gagging for a go, why do I think it would be the USA leading the way? Because they have the biggest, best-funded laboratories. Once the US changes its laws, my bet is that all the top European scientists will decamp to California and get to business.

The culture will determine that research is conducted in a particular way, ie. probably privately funded, probably paying for "donations", eventual financial profits would be privately held. Are any of these things problems in and of themselves?
Yes. Firstly because science is supposed to be disinterested. Any science making a profit should be regarded with suspicion.
Second, who is going to provide the genetic material? The same college girls who sell their eggs to infertile buyers at tens of $1000s a pop? Maybe, but because this is a market not concerned with your social status, IQ, skin colour, or citizenship, you can bet your bottom dollar it will end up being poor people. Will they know what their genetic material is being used for? Will they be well informed? Do they share the scientists un-problematic view of the process? There is already a market for organs, with buyers tending to be rich Western men, sellers tending to be poor Indian women.
Would the top scientists donate their own eggs and sperm?

We could say here that all the research material would come from fertility clinics who would toss the embryos anyway. But - how many embryos do fertility labs actually account for? It can't be many compared to how many will be needed for all the proposed research - which is going to take ages. That scientific stuff of making successful assays, isolating proteins and hormones - all that takes literally tonnes of raw material.

Despite these problems and more, the so-called "ethical" debate is limited to re-hashings of abortion arguments. Quasi-philosophical discussions about when life begins that we can never answer - rather than the actual real problems, some of which I've raised already, plus those of over-medicalisation. For instance, stem cell research is being touted by pharma as something that will potentially help "millions of Americans". Now, there are not millions of Americans made into quadraplegics. There are however, millions of Americans with "high blood pressure". Hmm. So are we at least in part getting so excited about this on false premises? Bloody high blood pressure - what a joke that medicine is going to solve the problem of people aging, eating rubbish, being sedentary, and having the "norm" of high blood pressure set by young healthy people. High blood pressure (both actually and in how it is defined) is a social problem, not a medical one.

Then there are the cancers, and all the brain and neuro illnesses. Yes, I hope they are all cured. I hope lots of people donate their genetic material to contribute to research. But that's a broad spectrum of illness to research, and with limited research materials, where do you really think the enquiry is going to go? That's right... to the profits! Ie. frikkin high blood pressure and diabetes!

Science is like that.
If you go to Wikipedia and look at Stem Cell research, they give a time line of Stem Cell highlights. The timeline has been constructed in hindsight with findings that were irrelevent and ignored for a long time as important contributions. There are these big gaps where it looks like nothing happened - presumably these were the times that science took a turn that is nolonger credible. Then as we near the present day, the highlights become increasingly frequent, indicating we should suppose the leaps and bounds that are being made.

But at this point, its all hypothetical. Of course research has to go ahead in order for us to learn something new. But where is the real public discussion? Where is the discussion about medicine and how our societies are messing up our health to begin with?

The essence of what I want to say here is that there are a range of concerns not being taken seriously because the debate is polarised being controlled by basically 2 camps of opinion: scientists + pharma on one hand; politicians + clergy on the other.
And the choruses are bleating about religion baaad, science baaad. As if nobody had ever finished their secondary education.

What frustrates me about listening to people talk about stem cell research is that they actually put on this big act like they suddenly support science and think that scientific work is an unbridled good. Whereas everybody knows that science can stink - its part make believe but pretends to be all rational, they present the information after years of accidents and trial and error as if they knew what they were trying to do all along, as if they discovered what they did because it was logically deduced - which is HELLO impossible because the whole point was they didn't know to begin with, and their animal trials are revolting and inhumane. Still, it amuses me. Religion amuses me to, but we have all had a lot more practice at criticising religion than many other forms of dogma.

Don't be one-sided. Its boring.


Blogger Don said...

Blimey let's see if I can make some relevant comment out of this lot.

I have a recollection of a recent article claiming stem cells are now being produced from "non-controversial" parts of the body, such as the nasal membrane. If true, this ought to quieten, if not quench altogether, the religious, anti-science argument from "morality".

"Any science making a profit should be regarded with suspicion". That's a tad selective. Truth is, any activity performed by humans ought to be regarded with suspicion. But Science; how often in truth, has it ever been conducted in a lucre-free, sanitised bubble? Maybe in the Universities there's little in the way of monetary profit, but there are other ways of conceiving it. As the economists would say, "what's the incentive?". Fame and status spring to mind, but I'm sure there's lots more. The point is, where there's incentive there's the possibility of less than honorable activity, and science and academia for sure aren't above its temptations; but that's the human condition, isn't it?

Personally, being neither a scientist or theologian, and not having a capitalist-smashing agenda, I'll go with the current, privately funded method. There's no acitivity on earth that's problem free; even navel-gazing can bring to light deeply buried demons, best left alone. And one things for sure, as noble as a spiritual path may be, on its own it never cured TB, polio, or any of the other one-time killers. As for the big boys being selective in their research, I'm sure if we overcame our understandable indignation at their biased, profit-fuelled research, and focused elsewhere, we'll find plenty of worthy experimentation going on. Wont we?

By the way, religion doesn't amuse me. Not per se. Only when, like all other organisations - including commercial, charitable, and right-on-academic-think-tank groups - they lose sight of what they're about, and the old group dynamics come into play. It seems to me, from what I've read and experienced, these forces will always come into play, such that there's a dominant person or persons, with the rest blindly following. Any dissent is not tolerated, with the offender being subtley, or otherwise, removed. Given this huge drawback, how the fuck do all opinions get considered in discussions? Or maybe I should say, do all of the opinions get taken into consideration?

By the way, I'm willing to donate my sperm if the incentive is good enough. Doing it solo in a cubicle with a magazine is not an option.

12:40 am  
Blogger Natalia said...

I am all for Stem Cell research. With two family members with cancer, myself with PCOS and other people I know with other "incurable but treatable" issues, I think we are not paying enough attention or doing remotely enough to get these problems solved.


5:28 am  
Blogger Rosanna said...

Justine, this is an absolutely marvellous post.

Of course, the debate has become entirely two sided - the two areas which are black and white.

Religion vs. Science.

But there are a whole lot of grey areas in the middle, particularly with regards to the ethics of not just stem cell research but the way in which it is carried out.

Alot of science IS trial and error. I learnt that from year 12 chemistry when I blew up a test tube.

11:09 am  
Blogger Aleks - Anarcho-Syndicalist said...

There is a movie called Extreme Measures. It was critically panned at the time it was released and still is. Why? Because it isn't your typical Hollywood movie. In it, scientists are performing medical experiments on homeless people. Their reason - the quickest way to see results is to test them on real people, as opposed to animals etc. Why the homelss? because who will miss them? Isn't it worth the sacrifice of a few people no one will miss anyway, because the benefits of such research and experiments?

As you pointed out, where will these stem cells came from? Has anyone really considered this properly? Probably not. A way will be worked out so that it benefits the wealthy, while having no impact, or a negative impact on the poor. That is the way things have deveoped over the last 5,000 years.

Scientists like to see themselves as objective in the way they work. The problem with this ammoral perspective is that it can be used just as much for bad as good - Alfred Nobel anyone?

Religion sees itself as have this unflinching view of what is right and wrong based on their religious texts. Unfortunatly what this promotes are things like racism, sexism and homophobia.

The argument on whether stem cell research is ethical or not is not new.

After the end of WW2, Allied scientists were faced with the prospect of using medical research conducted by Nazi doctors/scientists like Dr Josef Mengele, as well as (this isn't was well known) medical research conducted by the Japanese - primarliy on the Chinese. Some people said that if it was used, it would ensure that those people who lost their lives did not do so in vain. Others argued that by using the research you in fact justified what the Scientists did. The onset of the cold ware ensured that the public debate around this was quickly ended and that ethical issues were put asside.

As you said Justine, the issue isn't black or white. I have very little faith in both science and religion, because when it comes down to it they are both dependent on human beings, and as such can be used (or misused) for a less than noble purpose.

3:20 pm  
Blogger Chai said...

They're just investigating. It might work and it might not work. What is important is that they try.
The church's track record is to not try. Keep literacy to a select few, the earth is flat, sun goes round the earth, dont try to figure out the universe.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Meow said...

Hey, Justine ... no sure what happened earlier ... your blog wasn't there, it was blank.
But, now it's back ... yay.
Hope you are well, and enjoying Summer. It's way cold down here !!
Have a fabulous week.
Take care, Meow

9:40 pm  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

hi Justine, I could just copy the last paragraph of Aleks' comment :-)

Humans are the weak link and it makes us susceptible to corruption, error, etc. There is no easy answer.

glad to see you again!

3:49 am  
Blogger Justine said...

Time poor! Quick comments...

Its not what, its how. I'm not against stemcell research per se.

Hi Don - you might not want to smash the system, but come on I bet you've wanted to break its tail light. Fair enough being for private research, but that needs to be discussed first.
Knowing you, you would donate sperm if you thought it would help somebody.

Hi Natalia - I can see how my rant would seem unreasonable - I do hope cures are found.

Rosanna - thanks for actually understanding my point, which might have been fairly thickly covered in a fairly thick stew of unclear waffle...

Aleks - I have missed your thoroughgoing evenly distributed skepticism.

Hey Chai - good point, I kind of skipped all that. The church is full of losers and psychos.

Hi Meow - might have been in compose/draft mode? Enjoy the coolth while it lasts!


3:59 am  
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