Archive for Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Science not villain in debate

August 28, 2001


I am a former embryo. I was once a few stem cells old, a microscopic fleck. Happily, I was not a fleck fertilized in a test tube, waiting to be frozen, implanted or discarded. I would not have wanted to be associated with causing the moral, political and ethical fall of humanity, which is how some ethicists and pundits brand medical research on test-tube stem cells that were created in vitro for infertile couples. They condemned President Bush's decision to allow federal funding for research on certain stem cells and accused science and government of colluding to "play God."

Opponents of research on test-tube stem cells have a deep reverence for life. So do I. So do most people on Earth. But the reverence cited by those opposed to test tube stem-cell research seems oddly narrow and nearsighted. The reverence begins and ends with us, Homo sapiens. And it begins with us as single cells, whether they are conceived inside the human body or artificially fertilized and frozen outside the body in a laboratory petri dish.

It is strange, perhaps even somewhat hypocritical, that this reverence does not extend to the rest of life on Earth, the millions of species of plants, animals and microbes, some of which also live inside our bodies. If a few cells artificially created in a test-tube are the Rubicon for revering life, how should we esteem the elephant on the African savanna, the panda in China's bamboo forest, the blue whale in the deep blue waters, the coral on Australia's barrier reef, the condor in the Chilean Andes, the iridescent beetle in the Amazon or the big bluestem on the tall grass prairie in Kansas?

Reverence for human life ordains reverence for the life of the planet, because these animals, plants and microbes make human existence on Earth possible. They clean our water, air and soil. They buffer droughts and floods, scrub our wastes and neutralize our pollutants. They pollinate crops, check agricultural pests and keep the earth fertile. They provide our food, fuel, fiber and pharmaceuticals.

They give us our oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and control the Earth's climate. They make our ecosystems, the steppe, savanna, forest, meadow and marsh that paint the planet blue, looking up from Earth or down from space. Analysts value these "free" natural services at trillions of dollars annually, but they are priceless because they cannot be replaced by technology at any cost. So, why aren't the protectors of test-tube stem cells in the forefront of protecting the life of the planet?

Science is a convenient whipping boy in the stem-cell debate, blithely accused of playing God, a euphemism for the ultimate control of nature. But such accusations are intellectually dishonest. The difficult truth is that society got what it bargained for when people decided they have two inalienable rights at virtually any cost: First, the right to genetic immortality, namely, biological reproduction even when nature left people sterile or childless; and second, the right to individual immortality, namely, every possible medical intervention to prolong life.

To grant people the right of biological reproduction, medical science learned how to fertilize human eggs artificially in a laboratory test tube, implant one and freeze the rest in case the first implant failed. To grant people the longest life possible, medical science is poised to learn how to make those frozen stem cells into skin tissue for burn victims, muscle tissue for heart patients and nerve tissue for Alzheimer's sufferers.

Stem cells have suddenly become life's elixir, bottling the promise of genetic immortality and individual immortality in a frozen test tube. The same stem cells can fulfill both the right to reproduce and the right to prolong life. Why then are people suddenly sanctimonious about getting what they demanded? Society can't have it both ways; it can't tell science to provide us with genetic and individual immortality, and, at the same time, accuse science of deflecting our moral compass.

Finally, ever since humans appeared on Earth, we have practiced the control of nature on a much larger scale. For better or worse, we rerouted the Colorado River, genetically engineered new strains of mice, corn, tomatoes and pigs, exterminated the dodo and passenger pigeon, and let tallgrass prairies become waste dumps. Every day on every corner of the planet we tinker with life and with the natural systems on which all of life depends.

For some people, our tinkering with the environment is akin to original sin, much as others feel about our tinkering with stem cells. Both views are extreme. We are, again for better or worse, users of the biosphere, exploiting its natural systems for the benefit of human systems. We are also the biosphere's only steward.

One role of science is to help us understand Earth's natural and human systems, so that future generations will be better stewards, able to tinker with our environment and ourselves with greater knowledge, precision and wisdom. It's up to us to make sure that science succeeds.

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