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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

 
floating question markMy colleague here, jt, has already noted the big news of the week, month, year, possibly even decade -- the news of induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells, grown from skin cells and behaving much (maybe exactly, no one knows yet) like embryonic stem cells, thus able to be directed in whatever way desired to produce blood cells, bone cells, brain cells...

It's hard not to view the new development with delight, if only because it has the potential to put behind us the acrimonious, sometimes hateful and maybe unresolvable arguments about medicine-vs.-God. Maybe now we'll be able to come together, if not over abortion rights then at least over the issue of "harvesting" genetic matter from embryos -- to say nothing of the debate over when, exactly, human life begins. Is that progress or is that progress?

Well, as Ivan Doig and others might say: Maybe so, and maybe no.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen with the new technology. Nobody knows how it will behave in the real world, or even how many years it will be before those other questions can be answered. But let's assume that all goes swimmingly, exactly as hoped for.

What then?

My fear is not really that we have not dodged the big bullet. I think we have. My fear is that we've been so frozen, mesmerized, by our fear of that big bullet and what it could do to the temper of our lives, we've watched with such frightened fascination as it has borne down upon us, that we've missed something important: the other big bullet, which has been hiding behind the first and traveling at least as fast, aimed straight for our faces. That second big bullet, I fear, isn't the question of "When does human life begin?" but the starker question, "What is human life for?"

The skin cells from which iPS cells will be grown, after all, will still have to come from people. How much "skin farming" is too much? Is there a "too much"? Are there potential black markets in the offing, with skin cells with particular genetic compositions more highly valued and hence more expensive (and hence more out of the reach of people who need them most) than others? If iPS cells can be used to make a heart, or a spine, or a fingernail, at what point -- if any -- do we step in and say, "Okay, fine, but you're not going to be allowed to assemble those organs into full-blown organisms?"

Am I being paranoid here? I don't know. All I know is that the law of unintended consequences isn't likely to just sit in the corner, knitting booties, while this technology works its way to reality. According to the Wikipedia article on this perverse law, sociologist Robert K. Merton identified five causes of such consequences:
  1. Ignorance (It is impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis)
  2. Error (Incorrect analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation)
  3. Immediate interest, which may override long-term interests
  4. Basic values may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
  5. Self-defeating prophecy (Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is unanticipated)
I don't know about you, but it kind of gives me the squirms to recognize in that list many, many possibilities which might come to bear in this case.

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