A refrain from Groucho Marx

“And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it!”
The Beloved Leader opposed embryonic stem cell research because it involved killing embryos. Now a new technique allows embryonic stem cell research that doesn’t involve embryos.
The Beloved Leader opposes it anyway.

As the college president in Horse Feathers:

And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,

I’m against it!

The ethical case, such as it was, for opposing embryonic stem cell research just got substantially weaker. It’s possible to extract a single cell from a zygote without killing the zygote; IVF clinics already do that to test for genetic abnormalities, and the resulting children don’t seem to be any worse off than those who develop from untouched zygotes. Now it turns out that a stem cell line can be developed from such an extracted cell.

The Bush Administration, which opposed embryonic stem cell research because it destroys embryos (as opposed to routine IVF, which simply produces embryos and then disposes of them) turns out to be opposed to embryonic stem cell research that doesn’t destroy any embryos; now its objection is to the use of human embryos in research. Naturally, its allied yahoos also remain opposed, with Sam Brownback proudly parading his ignorance.

Update Okay, I take back “ignorant.” It’s possible that a single blastomere could develop into a fetus, though of course not without lots of fancy maniupulation that has never been done with a human blastomere; even the research to determine whether it might be possible would be grossly unethical. I still claim it’s pretty damned silly to call the single blastomere a “twin” of the seven-blastomere group we know can and does develop into a fetus, and then claim that the “twin” was destroyed.

Even putting aside the fact that the zygotes in question weren’t going to be implanted anyway, no harm of any sort has been done to the zygote. But I keep forgetting that in discussions of these issues the rule “no harm, no foul” simply doesn’t apply.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

22 thoughts on “A refrain from Groucho Marx”

  1. My first reaction to the headline was that this would be pretty good news for science and for human health, but bad news for Democrats running in elections this November. Bush and the Republicans would use this as an excuse to withdraw their objections, and indeed would declare this as a personal victory: "My restrictions against the unconscionable practice of destroying embryos have inspired scientists to develop new, humane techniques. Thanks to us, thanks to my first ever veto, science can advance without sacrificing our morality." Stem cells go from one of the best issues for Democrats to nothing at all, and money for studies starts flowing three months before the Democrats win enough seats to overrule a veto. Perhaps the slightly looser rules take away support for what had previously been an inevitable and much broader relaxation of scientific restrictions.
    Reading the article, it looks like my first instincts were wrong. The Catholic Church still opposes it, as they continue to oppose IVF. That's to be expected. But it looks like the Republicans are also maintaining their objections, objections which of course never had anything to do with scientific details. I don't know if that will hold up — even at this late date in the administration all it would take to bring around most of his party is for Bush to publicly grant support for the new procedure and relax the executive order against funding. I'd say he has a few days to "go over the science" before he's committed to his opposition.
    At this point, I have to say I'm hoping in my gut that the Republicans dig in and keep fighting. This is a fight they will lose, and lose soon.

  2. The main reason this is good news is that it addresses concerns sincerely if probably irrationally held by many Americans. Similarly, if a line of research can be pursued using adult or placental stem cells rather than embryonic ones, that's also a plus. Democrats should of course fight for stem cell research, but without triumphalism.

  3. Often wondered why, if guys like our Prez are so convinced that embryo's are human, there are not funerals for them when they're discarded.
    Just think of the business that would be created for the Funeral Industry and the Church…

  4. If you believe the president is sincere but misguided on this issue, as many Americans do, you believe he'll relent.
    If you believe the president is INsincere on this issue and is simply playing to the Christofascist base (and as an observant Presbyterian I'm fully entitled to use the pejorative), you believe he won't.
    At this point, I'm in the latter camp. But because both my brothers have Type I diabetes, I'm willing to be surprised.

  5. Mark, you say that Brownback parades his ignorance. What do you mean to suggest? Are you taking a position on the science here? And what do you mean to say? That it ignorant to suggest that a single blastomere is totipotent at this stage of development (though it is certain that blastomeres at a slightly later stage of development are totipotent)? I'm just not sure what you're getting at here.

  6. Brownback's position makes sense only if that cell is not merely totipotent but capable of developing into a separate embryo, which it isn't.

  7. Ok, I'm confused here; According to the references I've just checked, a "totipotent" cell IS, by definition, capable of developing into a whole embryo. If it wasn't, it would be termed "pluripotent", instead.
    So, even though I disagree with Brownback's conclusions, I don't think he's the one parading his ignorance around here. Or if he is, he's got a lot of really well educated people parading around with him.

  8. As someone with big reservations about killing (even 'excess') embryos for research, I'm very happy with the new development if it is as it appears.

  9. Brett, that was my understanding as well. The ACT flack seemed to say, we don't really know if this cell could develop, because we've never seen it happen at this stage, without saying that there's no reason at all for thinking that this cell wouldn't develop. It's simply a convenient skepticism as I read it. (Did they learn this from the cigarette business, or from the oil business?)
    Mark apparently has some other reading, but he still hasn't shared it.

  10. Mark: My understanding is that we do not know whether or not a blastomere can develop into an embryo, and are unlikely to find out, since the experiments needed to settle the question are plainly unethical.
    As far as I know, blastomeres can develop into infants in some species, but not in others.

  11. Not *really* relevant, but interesting, in a "cui bono" way – at Advanced Cell Technology's website, we see the Aug 23 announcement sparking the press coverage.
    We also see an Aug 22 announcement that they are negotiating terms of $11 million in new financing.
    I suppose they have an obligation to announce material info. However, the scientific breakthough surely will lower their cost of funds.
    As to the Timnes story – please. No one has any idea what this development means, so the WH pressperson straddled while Nicholas Wade of the Times (formerly of TAP) pressed hard to find Reps who would fulfill his story requirment by expressing opposition.
    A few prominent righty bloggers (Hugh Hewitt, Capt. Ed) are calling this a breakthrough. I can't think of a social controversy that achieved a 100% consensus overnight (and some polls show a significant fraction of America thinks Elvis Lives!), so – my guess is that maybe 10-20% of the public will never feel good about research with embryos. Bus just as some Dems abandoned "the party" on the partial birth abortion ban, plenty of Reps will abandon their base on embryonic stem cell research, if this development pans out.
    hilzoy makes an interesting point – arguably, this technique *may be* something like cloning an embryo, then saving the original for development into a human, and using the other for research. (Obviously, I have no idea if the one cell could become a viable embryo – don't ask, don't tell.)

  12. More on the Times story – (Confessore was the former TAP guy, I am having brain-lock) – the junor person Wade got ahold of yesterday was just punting (Emily Lawrimore, WH press person, is Clemson Class of 2002).
    Here was the press conference today –
    Q Any decision to perhaps revisit the President's position on federal funding for stem cell research, in light of this new development that was published yesterday in the journal Nature?
    MS. PERINO: Hold on a second, Roz. The President is the first President to ever provide federal funding for stem cell research. Yes, he drew a line, an ethical line, in terms of taxpayer dollars to spend money on research that would use the destruction of a human embryo. He has been an aggressive supporter of other forms of stem cell research like adult stem cell and cord blood research.
    This study today reported in Nature Magazine has not been reviewed by scientists and bio-ethicists yet, but it is one that the President believes deserves a good look. He is encouraged that there are scientists who are continuing to look for innovative ways to do stem cell research that would not involve the destruction of embryos. And so he is going to listen to folks after they have a chance to review the study, but it does hold some promise that they would be able to do that type of research without destruction of a human embryo.
    Q — this before the President makes any decision, he needs to see what the entire community thinks about this particular development?
    MS. PERINO: Well, I think it would not be prudent for anyone to make a snap decision about a major policy before being able to actually read a report. So let's give it some time, but it's certainly encouraging.
    A bit more bullish, one might argue.

  13. i can quit anytime, but… as to the viability of the single blastomere isolated for test purposes (curently) or for the creation of stem cells (prospectively) – I have no idea, but Google coughed up this study on mice:
    Identical triplets and twins developed from isolated
    blastomeres of 8- and 16-cell mouse embryos supported with tetraploid blastomeres
    To my untrained eye, it appears that single blastomeres can (in special circumstances) be viable, so the ethical puzzle identified by Brownback may be in play.
    As to the public's reaction to that, who knows? For myself, I think this is slicing the baloney too fine (put another way, this slope isn't slippery enough), and this technique seems to overcome the fundamental objection about destroying life.
    However, the notion that Brownback's spokesguy is utterly ignorant may not be utterly correct.

  14. Folks…
    I have no conclusive proof of this, (but if it quacks like a duck…)
    But a few things to consider here:
    1. Let us not forget that Bush's position is about refusing FEDERAL FUNDING for stem-cell research, which is basically the same as abandoning support of Public Science.
    2. Read the above again, and then remind yourself that too many people conflate that position with the fallacy that "Bush is against stem-cell research and wants to make it illegal"
    Nothing of the sort!
    3. Finally- these people are all about promoting and preserving The Ownership Society. Anyone can see that advances from Stem cell research have the potential of making VAST fortunes for private industries (We know all about Big-Pharm by now, don't we???). All the more vast when they don't have to face competition from PUBLICLY-FUNDED research institutes. Simple- private funding, private patents, private ownership, enormous fortunes.
    4. It's all about the money. The "Moral" posturing is just another lame smoke-screen to get the base all in a lather. Again.
    Don't forget that.

  15. Mark, I don't think you can say that the research to determine whether a single blastomere could develop into a fetus would be grossly unethical. Some people could, but I think you're in the "no harm, no foul" camp on that issue as well.
    And isn't this the case of the "fancy manipulation" that had never been done? The complicated part is blastomere separation, not the division of the separated blastomere–that doesn't require anything sophisticated does it?
    It just needs continued development–whether in culture or in utero–to develop into an embryo and a fetus.

  16. Tom: single blastomeres from some species can develop into embryos; single blastomeres from other species can't. We just don't know which group humans fall into, and can't, since the experiments would be unethical.
    Why unethical? Consider: aside from the general unsavoriness of having women undertake experimental pregnancies which aren't of the form 'I really, really want to get pregnant but haven't been able to; might this new technique possibly help me?', but rather: 'I can get pregnant by one of the established techniques; let's see whether this utterly novel technique works as well', we do not know whether taking a single blastomere from an 8 cell blastocyst and implanting it would be safe either for the resulting child (if there is one), or for the original blastocyst. We'd need to answer these questions experimentally. And testing new fertility treatments for safety when other are available — where 'safety' means things like: not causing birth defects in one or both fetuses — is just plain wrong.

  17. hilzoy, I'm not sure that's right. Here's what the International Society for Stem Cell Research (a pro-ESCR group) says about this method:
    The blastomere method does NOT avoid the ethical dilemma over whether it is acceptable to destroy an embryo to derive stem cells. In order for the blastomere method to work, researchers have to remove a blastomere from an early (four or eight-cell) embryo and then stimulate that blastomere to begin dividing and developing to the blastocyst stage, at which it can be a source of stem cells. The fact that the blastomere developed into a blastocyst means that it has the same potential as the original embryo. So if destroying the original embryo is unethical, then destroying the blastomere-created embryo is just as unacceptable.
    They strongly suggest that the fact that the blastomere becomes a source of stem cells demonstrates that the blastomere has developed–if the blastomere couldn't develop in the human species, then the procedure wouldn't work.
    Also, my understanding is that we do have some data on the safety for the original blastocyst, as this technique is used for genetic testing pre-implantation. As for the development of the other (new) blastocyst, if we were curious how far the process could go, it seems to me that Mark, at least, is entirely committed to the view that development and investigation through the fetal stage followed by destruction of the fetus wouldn't harm anyone at all (since the fetus is never anyone) No harm, no foul, right?

  18. Interesting that most, if not all, comments come from men. Yeah, yeah, yeah – you;ve heard this before. But, let me tell you, you have no bidness in this debate. Or, at least, a very small part.
    Rail away, boyos.

  19. Sarah, why would women have a more prominent role in the debate over what happens in science labs around the country? Are women more prominent there? Disproportionately represented? What is it?

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