Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Stem cell research blocked

When "not enough is known" about an important -- possibly life-changing -- subject, you might be forgiven for thinking that would be an invitation to know more, and an incentive for further research. Not so in recent NZ decision, in which an important medical trial has been cancelled because "not enough is known" about the subject being researched.

In a decision that is at once a blow to science, to medicine, and (potentially) to those suffering with spinal disfunction, a recent spinal injury study involving stem cells has been blocked, not by scientists, but by a "Ministry of Health ethics committee."
Cynthia Darlington, from the ethics committee, says not enough is known about stem cells for such a trial to be carried out safely. Ms Darlington says the Society might have given people false hope.
It is unclear from the brief report whether the decision is more about safety, or more about a concern that the research "might have given people false hope." According to the Spinal Cord Society, the study using stem cells from the nose was intended to replicate a procedure developed by Dr Carlos Lima in Portugal (about which more here, and here). The procedure has been performed on fifty patients, some of whom have reported regaining some sensation and function. But the ethics committee here says "not enough is known about stem cells" for permission to be given to carry out this local trial.

But surely the point of a trial is that not enough is known -- the very point is to learn more, isn't it? To know more? To push back uncertainty?

It's unclear from reports whether the audit of Dr Lima's cases has been carried out, or if the trial has been cancelled before this has been done, but the brief report gives no indication of any specific concerns with the safety of Dr Lima's procedures. Rather, it appears to be simply a decision from on high to stop what should have been potentially ground-breaking medical research, and given the reported opposition of a research competitor at the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch, possibly an anti-competitive one.

Writing about the rise of ethics committees such as those making this decision, scientist Stuart Derbyshire calls it "regulation by another name," and its difficult to see it any other way. Rather than studying the actual ethics of a procedure or a study, ethics committees, he says, simply pay hand-wringing obeisance to uncertainty, and all too frequently stand in the way of researchers acquiring real certainty, and in achieving real medical breakthroughs.

Such committees, are often stacked with people unfamiliar with science or medicine, with the result that "too often priority [is given] to the sensitivities and feelings of non-specialists over the expertise of specialists"; they are, he says, "the product of an increasing suspicion regarding the nefarious aims of scientists" -- they represent "the capitulation of scientific authority," with not even the saving grace of efficacy in their stated aims:

Although the aim [of the committees and their procedures] is to prevent harm to subjects and patients, there is no evidence that the application forms, review procedures and consent materials actually do this...
Derbyshire concludes that as a consequence of the rise of regulation by ethics committe, research questions increasingly tend be restricted to conventional, safe and popular areas, with inquiry characterised by deference rather than the challenging of established wisdom, and with what amounts to censorship supplanting academic freedom.

A strong claim, but given the controversy over stem cell research -- with the dissent coming largely from the religious and, locally, from the tangata whenua quarter - one with which I have a lot of sympathy.

Stem cell researchers Thilo Spahl and Thomas Deichmann point out that stem cell research has huge promise for as yet unknown treatments. It "promises the possibility of treatments and cures for a host of different serious medical conditions" -- "it is research that is daily pushing back the boundaries of scientific knowledge." Or it would be, if such research was allowed, "even if the research involves the questioning of contemporary taboos." Such taboos must be challenged, they say, in order to free up scientific research, "which is the very condition upon which scientific discoveries and breakthroughs are made." They conclude:
Developing a morality that is grounded in the attempt to better the human condition is an important task for those of us who wish to live in a society in which we can take full benefit of the advantages which current science offers us.
Hear, hear! As philsopher Craig Biddle said in a similar context, "it's good to play God."

NB: The comments on ethics committees and stem cell research come from an excellent analysis called Science vs. Superstition: The case for a new scientific enlightenment. It can be found in PDF form at the Policy Exchange site.

LINKS: Stem cell trial blocked - Newswire
Stem cell trial blocked by ministry - Radio NZ
Stem cells from the nose - Spinal Cord Society of NZ
Clinical trials - Spinal Cord Society of NZ
Home page - Spinal Cord Society of NZ
Olfactory tissue transplantation for spinal research (Part 1) - Laurance Johnston, Alternative & Innovative Therapies for Physical Disability
Olfactory tissue transplantation for spinal research (Part 2) - Laurance Johnston, Alternative & Innovative Therapies for Physical Disability
Science vs. Superstition: The case for a new scientific enlightenment - Policy Exchange
Of mice and men - Craig Biddle, The Objective Standard

RELATED POSTS ON: Health, Science, Ethics, Politics-NZ


  1. It is incorrect to claim there is religious objection against stem cell research.

    The only objection is when life is taking to obtain such cells. Which is quite a different position.

    Please state the religious objections correctly, and just don't tar everyone with the same brush.

  2. Life, you say? Taking life?

    In the words of John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. You "take life" every time you pull a weed. Is that wrong too?

    But let me lay out the position clearly, as you've invited me to do. Here it is from the linked article:

    "The problem of stem cell research
    Although extensive research is being carried out around the world on both adult and embryonic stem cells, it is only embryonic stem cell research that has been the subject of controversy. The reason is quite clear. In order to extract embryonic stem cells the donor embryo must be destroyed. Even though these embryos are only a few days old when they are destroyed – an undifferentiated heap of cells which is no bigger than the dot at the end of this sentence – and were in any case produced artificially for the purpose of artificial insemination, they are considered
    by some to be entities endowed with moral worthiness and deserving
    our protection.The lobby groups that defend the interest, presumably, of these embryos themselves, have emerged as a powerful force in many

    You wish to deny,Berend, that "those powerful forces" are largely religious?

    You wish to deny that crucial and life-saving research is being blocked around the world because religious looby groups are defending the interests of -- what? -- well, of embryos which are only a few days old when they are destroyed – of an undifferentiated heap of cells which is no bigger than the dot at the end of this sentence – of protoplasm which hsa been produced artificially, and specifically for the purpose of research?

    Is that your position? Is their position your position?

    Then you would be incorrect to object.

    But the life that is being taken is not just a weed, you say, not just protoplasm? It's a human being, you say?

    No, it isn't. Not yet.

    On this point, may I invite you to read and ponder Tibor Machan's argument at "The real issue so called pro-lifers ought to be concerned about is when a human being comes into existence, not when life begins. Even sperm are alive, yet these are killed routinely without anyone suggesting that it constitutes murder."

    Is it also your position that sperm should not be used in either research or medial treatment, since that too is "taking life"?

    If it's okay to use the protoplasm of sperm, then why not the embryonic protoplasm? Tibor's point is a sound one, and one I suggest you pnder at length: The real issue is not when life begins, but when a human being comes into existence.

    Think about it.

    You can find Tibor's piece here, at his blog: 'Abortion Debate Redux'

  3. Gee, and they say only the left are unhinged.

  4. Oops, I forgot to post the link to Tibor's piece: Abortion Debate Redux.

    Scrubone: Not sure of your point there exactly. Are you?

  5. pc, I remember reading here an article by Ayn Rand that advocated presenting an opponents view even better than he himself did. That trait probably got lots among libertarianz, but I'm pushing for it to be resurrected.

    Take your reference to plants. What purpose did that serve? Of course I was talking about human life, why attempt to turn this into something different? But perhaps it's not different and plant life and human life have no essential differences for you.

    Being human isn't a quantity, it's a quality.

    And religious people are not banning stem cell research, that's utter nonsense. Creating babies and killing them to advance some cause, however worthy, is what is being objected to.

    For you people are human according to an arbitrary, shifting definition which amounts to nothing more than: if pc thinks you're human, you are. It's a sum of quantities something possesses which must be carefully evaluated before we can pronounce the thing a human being.

  6. Berend,

    What quality does a day old embryo share with a fully grown adult human?

  7. Peter, I still struggle with this 'pre-human' definition. Also Tibor's argument, too, in its broadness.

    It is inconceivable to compare the existence of a solitary sperm with, say, a four-month foetus.

    I would note that this position is separate to my disgust that Stem Cell research is being stymied by certain parties.

    I've said this before, but it stands. From the moment I learned that my sister was pregnant, we were talking about 'the baby', not 'the embryo/protoplasm', etc.

    With technology providing increasingly clearer images of life within the womb, this outright clinical approach to life is one side of an argument that I believe will only continue to grow, rather than subside.

  8. Brian S, likewise, what quality does a newborn baby share with a fully grown adult human? And what is the point of your question?

  9. Berend, You have a good point, and I'm sorry you think I've misrepresented your position. The religionist argument is that embryonic stem cell research should be banned and research on it stopped because the embyronic cells are human beings.

    Isn't that the argument?

    "Take your reference to plants. What purpose did that serve? Of course I was talking about human life, why attempt to turn this into something different? But perhaps it's not different and plant life and human life have no essential differences for you."

    Well yes they do. The point of that was to demonstrate that not not everything alive is worthy of legal protection, just as everything that's alive is not human.

    The point that Tibor makes is that the issue is not "taking life," the issue is that of the humanity of those life-giving cells. "The real issue so called pro-lifers ought to be concerned about is not when life begins, but when a human being comes into existence."

    There is a bright line which must be crossed for an undifferentiated heap of cells which is no bigger than the dot at the end of this sentence to become a human being.

    Where do you place that line, and why?

  10. pc, in issues like this, where human life is concerned, wouldn't it be better to be safe than to be sorry?

    On matter of where human life begins: every life that has the potential of becoming that full grown adult, is human life. You do not need to pass a math test, or pass a brain test in order to be pronounced human.

    You know who went down that road.

    You are human, because you are human. You are not human because you possess certain skills (the quantity argument), but because in you is all the human potential (the quality).

    There is no magic moment where you become human. When a sperm cell and an egg cell meet, that very first zygote, is human by potential.

    An egg cell or a sperm cell or a hair cell are not human. They have no potential to become human life, but a zygote does.

    And there is exactly where the objection against using fetus stem cells rests upon. As far as I can see there is nothing wrong with stem cell research perse. It's how you arrive at those stem cells.

    Just as there might be nothing wrong with kidney transplants. It's how you arrive at the replacement kidney where we have the ethical questions.

  11. Lucyna,

    "Quality" wasn't my choice of word, so I can't answer your question as it stands.

    I can say that what I regard as important about a new born baby is that it is in poccession of a fully functioning human brain. This brain is already a hive of activity as it tries to make sense of the world around it and the sensory inputs it is receiving. It is engaged in a learning process that goes way beyond anything an animal brain is capable of.

    Day old embryos are not in poccession of a human brain, or anything resembling a human brain.

  12. Brian, so anyone not in possession of a fully functioning human brain is therefore not human and can be killed? Is that where you are going with this?

  13. Can we at least agree on Tibor's fundamental point: that the real issue is when does a human being come into existence.

    Do we agree on that much?

  14. Yes pc, that's the point: when becomes a human human.

    But the point is also that this is a point for you. Not for me, nor Lucyna. You do not become human, you are human from the beginning. There is no point where the supposed clump of cells isn't human or gains some attributes that would make it human.

  15. "You do not become human, you are human from the beginning. There is no point where the supposed clump of cells isn't human or gains some attributes that would make it human."

    The beginning of what? Space-time? You want to argue that a clump of unimaginably hot quarks is a human being? Excuse me if my reading comprehension is off but I cannot find any other way to interpret your notion that things are human without becoming human by some process resembling biology.

    I'd like to know whether the topic is abortion, or the ethics behind experimentation on fusion reactors.

  16. Lucyna,

    It does not follow from my statement that anyone not in possession of a fully functioning brain is not human and can be killed. I merely stated what I regard as important about a new born baby.

    Most people with brain damage still retain some intellectual capacity that puts them well above non-human animals. It is wrong to kill such people simply because they have a brain impairment. In the case of a completely brain dead person with no hope of recovery the argument is somewhat different. Here some people may have the right to bring about the termination of that person's life. Whether particular people do depends on a whole host of factors, including who has duty-of-care for the person and any "living wills" that the person may have made. But one cannot simply shoot any brain-dead person you see; that would be a crime.

  17. pedantipants,

    You ask when the beginning is. Its from the beginning of your life. I'm sure you could work out when that was.

    Brian S,

    You imply that the point where a human being is considered human is from birth. Somehow, in your mind, birth is the point at which a human's brain is functioning to the point where it confers a status of humanity upon the baby.

    Maybe that's not what you meant, but that's the thing with these arbitrary lines of humanity.

    I wrote about this a while ago.

  18. Lucyna, a line it is, but it is far from arbitrary. You tell Brian, "I'm sure you could work out" where the line is, but it seems you can't, and it seems you think it's arbitrary.

    In fact it seems to be a line you're struggling to avoid, just as you're trying to avoid Tibor's point, which is surely crucial to the point.

    You and Berend say that using embryonic stem cells is murder; you've said before that a woman terminating her pregnancy is murder; yet it is a fact that it can only be murder if it is a human being that is killed.

    So where's the line? Are you to insist that an insensate, insensitive clump of cells no bigger than the full stop at the end of this sentence is a human being? (And will you insist that in the name of this full stop that your likes and dislikes about that clump of cells should take precedence over those whose cells they are: ie., the mothers.)

    Or should we push the line further back? If you insist that we must favour the clump of cells as human beings because, although they aren't yet, they have the potential to become a human being, then how far back do we push this line?

    As Richard Dawkins points out, "Every refusal of any offer of copulation by a fertile individual is, by this dopey 'pro-life' logic, tantamount to the murder of a potential child! Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby (and by the way, there are plenty of 'pro-life' campaigners who would deny abortion even to women who have been brutally raped.)"

    Sounds ridiculous? But that's the reductio ad absurdum of your point, isn't it?

    So where's the line? And if you insist that clump of cells is human, then will you also insist that a brutally raped woman should be denied abortion?

  19. As a matter of interest, there really are organisations out there that equate contraception with abortion (or at least hold them to be equally bad).

    See for example,

    In most cases, this seems to be more about making sure that sex is always and only for procreation, rather than pushing the idea that life begins at conception, but that's definitely part of it.

  20. PC, from the moment of conception human life begins. You cannot push the line further back than that.

    I think abortion ought to be denied to everyone, unless the mother's life was at stake. Rape or no rape, once conception has occurred, then a human life has started. I do know of women who have been raped and have chosen to not have an abortion because the child was innocent, no matter how they were created.

    Contraception is bad for a number of reasons. It reduces sex down to pleasure - which encourages men and women to use each for personal gratification. If a child should result from what is supposed to be only a pleasurable experience, then it is expected that the woman take care of it, ie have an abortion.

    For Catholics, the other reason contraception is bad is that sex is more than just pleasure - it's an expression of love that allows for the creation of a child. Because a child is created by God during sex, it's a way of saying to God, we don't want you here. It's a direct rejection of the sacred.

  21. Ha! And Berend claimed this had nothing to do with religion! According to you, Lucyna, God is everywhere from womb to bedroom -- including (worryingly( in the legislature. And, if you'll forgive me for saying so -- you make a number of very revealing statements here: very revealing about you.

    Some quick comments:

    "PC, from the moment of conception human life begins"

    No, life begins. Once again, you've begged the question. Here it is again: When does the clump of cells produced at conception become human. And why?

    "I think abortion ought to be denied to everyone, unless the mother's life was at stake..."

    Pray tell, first off, how you would enforce this?

    And answer me, for a second point, what divine miracle in the "unless" case changes the abortion to something other than the murder you say it would be in the nasty "sex only for pleasure" case?

    "It reduces sex down to pleasure - which encourages men and women to use each for personal gratification."

    No, that's almost precisely why contraception is good -- although I might quibble with the words "reduces" and "down, "and substitute for it the words "raises" and "up."

    By what standard do you say that sex is dirty, or only for procreation. And by that, I mean by that earthly standard?

    And further, do you intend to deny contraception by force, since that is what your wording implies, and what your opposition to abortion and to stem cell research would suggest. If so, on what grounds?

    "...a child is created by God during sex..."

    Now hang on a minute. I don't know about you, but I have to say that I've never yet been in a threesome with God (although I can't deny that I've often heard him being invited quite loudly to join in). I can assure you that any "creation" would have been all my own work.

    So just how do you suggest God interposes himself in order to undertake this "creation" of which you talk?

    " is more than just pleasure... It's a direct rejection of the sacred."

    I mean this in all seriousness, and with none of the flippancy you might detect, but if you really think this, then you've been doing it the wrong way.

    Good sex is more than just pleasure -- hell, you can have just pleasure on your own in a room. Good sex is sacred: far too sacred to let religion intrude.

    * * * * * *

    I'll have more, much more, to say on this tomorrow -- unless of course someone else would like to step in in the meantime, taking my suggestions as their starting points?

  22. If God really wanted a particular baby to exist, then the baby's mother wouldn't get an abortion. He's omnipotent, He can do that. If you refuse to acknowledge the role of relentless application of law in the universe and in the process of pregnancy, consider that He has created this universe where abortion exists. It is by His graces that abortion is possible.

  23. Berend is correct. When a human life begins can be argued quite successfully without bringing God into it. Human life begins at conception. It can be proved scientifically that the cells that are created after conception are just as human as a fully grown adult is human. The term you are looking for is "personhood". When does personhood begin. Personhood is the legal term created to argue the point - not whether or not a zygote is human, because it quite clearly is. This is what I used to argue before I reverted back to Catholicism and this is what many non-believers argue. God and/or religion is not necessary as to our humanity.

    Now the conversation on contraception is outside of the scope of whether or not we are human; but here it is because some bright spark normally brings up a variation of the every sperm is sacred argument. It is obviously a related subject which can also be argued without putting God into it (my first point).

    I can see I've got you all excited now, PC.

    pedantipants, yes, God could choose to do as you say. He could choose to prevent us from doing evil, He could make us be totally good and then what would we be? His slaves. Given that He gave us free-will, we have the choice as to how we choose to live.

  24. Lucyna, I remember the case of a raped 14 yr old girl in Ireland who was denied an abortion by the Government, ie. read Catholic Church.

    If I remember correctly she wasn't allowed to go to England for the abortion either.

    Lucyna, to force a young child to bear a rapist's baby is EVIL - the work of the Devil, if the Devil existed.

  25. Hmmm... do we make the girl give birth or kill her baby? What is more evil? Pretty self-evident to me.

  26. With respect, if you believe that then for me there's no point in discussing this further.

  27. Lucyna,

    I think a foetus becomes human when the cerebral cortex forms. It is the cortex that enables us to reason, to generate knowledge, and to have consciousness. A clump of embryonic cells does not yet have any neurons, let alone a cortex. It can scarcely be conscious, let alone feel pain, can it?

    I agree that it is ridiculous to say that at 10.03pm the foetus was not human but at 10.04pm the foetus became human, but just because there is a grey area does not mean we can't distinguish black from white. As PC has been arguing, to grant rights to clumps of cells is to deny rights to actual real people.

    The only thing that can be said of an embryonic cell is that it has a complete genetic makeup. But so what? Genes do not a person make.

  28. brian, you don't actually believe that. And non of the abortionists do. They all argue for abortion right up to the head pops out of the birth canal.

    I start believing this when it appears in the libertarianz election manifesto, i.e. they actually define the minute when abortion is no longer legal.

    But they don't and won't. So all their arguing is meaningless pandering, look at the almost hysterical overreaction of pc, trying to claim I or Lucyna are actually claiming something ridiculous.

    So until Libertarianz are coming up with some actual political statement, modyfing their mostly excellent NZ constitution for example, it is no use debating them because they don't believe what they profess to believe.

  29. Brian s, just did some research. The cerebral cortex forms at week 10. Look forward at you signing a petition to make abortion illegal at week 10.

  30. berend, laws are necessary but all laws are backed with government violence - police with guns and the military if need be. This, as I'm sure you know, is reality.

    Would you be prepared to follow through and personally back up anti-abortion laws and pull the trigger on a woman or (raped) girl and their advocates defending themselves against armed government agents or police enforcing government anti-abortion laws?

  31. Berend - What is it I don't actually believe?


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