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June 08, 2009

Some Devilish Thoughts on Stem Cells

You will recall my mention of a menacing piece of correspondence from Down Under—way Under, which recently came to my attention. What follows is another dispatch that has surfaced, bearing the scrawlings of that hellish mystagogue . . .

Dear Swillpit,

Your latest report on the American front contained an item that is sure to be a watershed for our cause: the government funding of embryo destruction. It seems their decision makers really believe that it’s all in the interest of noble medical goals. Give rein to their folly. Later, we will have an eternity enjoying their shock at how they were played like a hand of rummy.

The quotes in the press clippings you included were particularly stirring. Statements like, we will be guided by “scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” and our decisions need to be “based on the recommendations of experts and scientists outside of politics and religion,” indicate that the guardrails we have been tugging on for centuries are at last, everywhere, crumbling.

Thanks to the efforts of field agents who have been patiently conditioning them with wileful whisperings, I feel that our long-fought outcome is within grasp.

In the not too distant past, the question before them was, “What should be done to improve their lot?” Now, by our incremental influences, they only think in terms of what can be done without regard to whether it should be done. Step by step, we have ushered them along a path which, just a few decades ago, they would have shuddered to look upon, but now course down in full stride! ...

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Danny M

You are out of your minds, logic be damned to your fervent ideologies. The NIH guidelines laid out for federal funding of stem cell research have made it crystal clear that any embryos used, would be only at the clear consent of the couple in an abortion clinic. As for SCNT, it is a viable form of research used by government funded investigators ALREADY, at both the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD as well as public research institutions in California, Wisconsin & New York.

The progression of research is a slow, carefully monitored process. It has started with observations of cells in petri dishes, and moving only after exacting research into therapies in mice, then rabbits, then goats, then monkeys and only in a long time, once the techniques have been specialized and the mechanisms of the transplants fully understood, to humans.

Save your demonizing, it's a knee jerk reaction by those who do not care to understand the actual work ongoing. You want to tell me you don't want to understand how, for example, amniotic fluid samples (already collected today for amniocentesis) could be eventually reprogrammed into cells capable of repairing missing cartilage in knees or the nerve endings throughout the body (which we have no viable means of creating today)? Morality needs to come into play, to temper the research and to avoid the catastrophic possibilities of patients being mislead into thinking they are getting a cure, when in fact they run the risk of having tumors grow from therapeutic treatments with no clinical data behind them (happening now in central America, southeast Asia & Russia, to name a few). These clinics in other countries do not apply our rigorous scientific methods, they simply store cell samples and inject massive doses into patients. With time, and proper steps, we can understand the pluripotent potential of embryonic stem cells and maybe even the mechanisms which lead to differentiation into every germ layer in the body. As it stands now NO adult stem cell has the same amount of plasticity, and in all honesty, we won't ever fully understand these cells if we do not have carefully monitored research.

This is not an argument about abortion, nor is it a place to lay down your religious fevor. Understand your place in history and realize that your anger is misguided if you're attacking some of the only investigators in the entire world who are trying to understand this, less than 20 year old, field of research. To replace the invasive surgery required to repair the human body currently, with the possibility of non-invasive regenerative therapy, would be a godsend. Would you rather have a large chunk of titanium placed in your hip as a ,"replacement," or have a therapy where, over a number of carefully monitored injections (using MRIs to guide the cells to the targeted location) you have your own bone regrow?

Jason Taylor

"You are out of your minds, logic be damned to your fervent ideologies."

I bow before your logic, as exemplified by your calm and rational spirit and your civility.


Danny M wrote: "Morality needs to come into play"

Indeed. I'm tempted to see "My Sister's Keeper" ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1078588/synopsis ) not for entertainment but to consider the morality of using one life to enhance the quality of another life. Personally, I would feel terribly conflicted, knowing that one person was unwillingly sacrificed for my benefit. As it is, I have enough difficulty with having someone willingly sacrificing Himself on my behalf.

Danny M

Danny, what Jason and I were trying to discern was this: are you so passionate about this because it simply represents a new area of knowledge, such that discovery is for discovery's sake, or are you passionate about this because it will help people, and you deeply care about people?

Because if it's the latter, you've shown the opposite by your tone in the opening salvo.

And if it's the latter, then wouldn't it be prudent to ask if neonatal stem cells are at all associated with people?

Otherwise, your fervor has the feel of "We should really wait to see what useful discoveries he makes before we interrupt Dr. Mengele."

Danny M

My fervor, if you call it as such, comes from the fact I've taken courses in Stem Cells and am a laboratory researcher. As for your comment about my tone, my original post was in response to the extraordinarially biased article. My second post was more of an enlightening one, for debate over the reason someone would want to cross out this field of research when we have no conclusive data against its viability for helping humans.

I am a supporter of regenerative medicine, which is a branch of stem cell research that is very promising. Instead of invasive surguries, it offers the possibility of a new way to combat medical concerns. This field has the possibility of providing an alternative for treatment, instead of heavy doses of chemotherapy for cancer and a litany of prescription drugs for heart disease, MS and a number of other genetic diseases. I get the daily google alerts on stem cells, and feel if a number of those who simply bash the field would look at the ongoing research, their opinions would be changed.

However, it is demonizing statements such as, "Later, we will have an eternity enjoying their shock at how they were played like a hand of rummy." Which show the complete disregard for the actual scientific discoveries going on. It's fox news conservatism at its worse, using religious diatribes to attack something that we don't even understand the mechanisms of yet. You do not see a single mention in this biased form of reporting that looks at the process of sound, steady research that is required for federal funding. These transplants have to be shown to be effective without causing tumor growth in a number of laboratory animals before ever getting close to a human. But no, all you get is religious diatribes based in, "common sense," with no care paid to the other side of the coin.

My tone might be abrasive, but at least I bring facts to the table. If all you do is talk about religious mysticism, then it comes across as extraordinarily heavy handed and lacking the decency to report the entire story as it stands.


Thank you, Danny, for the more reasonable tone. You might note that Regis's piece was a take-off of a famous piece of literature, so his tone was in keeping with the style of the original.

I myself spent about six months as a research assistant in a lab where we thought we'd found an effective and simple treatment for, among other things, sickle-cell anemia. So I know what it's like when the lab director starts to have visions of winning the Nobel for Medicine. I also know that when a lab becomes underfunded, people like yourself are the first to be let go - certainly a concern in this economy. So I'm convinced that your fervor does not have a purely scientific basis, and I see no problem with that. I seriously doubt that anyone here would really hope that you become unemployed. (Rather, they wish you could find employment in an activity that already has published results.)

Look at it this way: I've just asked, in another post's comments, what the value of a fetus is. (See this news article: http://www.kgw.com/news-local/stories/kgw_060909_news_unborn_justice_law.663db348.html ) At the suggestion of this blog's editor, I read a book called "Unwind" by Neal Shusterman. I recommend that you read it, if possible. It, plus the situation in the news article, cause me to wonder if a fetus couldn't simply be grown and used for spare parts (as are the teenagers in "Unwind"). It's reminiscent of that scene in "The Matrix" where Neo discovers that humans are used as batteries, and the dead are recycled to feed the living.

What Regis so poetically describes is the slippery slope toward just such a proposition, where one set of humans (or proto-humans, as the case may be) are used to foster the health of another set of humans. By refusing to grapple with bioethics, stem cell researchers have made "Unwind" a plausible next step. And, we argue, if the embryonic cells were allowed to progress /in vivo/, they would become a human - so really, we're already using one human to benefit another.

And the work of Dr. Josef Mengele on the treatment of gangrenous stomatitis showed much promise, too. Plus, his experimental subjects - Jews, the handicapped, "imbeciles" - weren't considered to be fully human by society, either. If Auschwitz hadn't been liberated by the Allies, who knows what discoveries could have been made?

And my point is not to make an argumentum ad Hitlerum, but rather to show what can happen when science gets so fixated on a noble goal (and/or a Nobel goal) that the researchers disregard the ethics of the process. Do the ends justify any means? Michael Crichton, in novel after novel, said "no."

So thank you for your comments, but unless you're willing to discuss more than merely the data, I don't see how we can dialogue. (Oh, BTW - has peer review of research been improved since that scandal that was published in JAMA in the late 1970s, showing that about 25% of medical research results were either falsified or fabricated? I hope, for your sake, that the research industry has been policing itself since then. If you know about this, I'd sincerely be interested; it's been bothering me for a long time.)

jason taylor

Danny, if you feel as strongly about your point of view, should you not prove it by making the sacrifice of swallowing your anger and speaking civilly thus making it easier to convince others? Surely you can at least make that sacrifice for your own cause?

Jason Taylor

In any case Danny, what is the point of the data anyway and how is it supposed to convince? It is also a fact that Mt Everest and K2 are the highest peaks and you can get a reliativly accurate(reliativly, because it varies do to snowfall and such)analysis of the how high each is and the distance between them. You can do this even more accurately with satilites. You can also get a distance between the two peaks. All this data can be gotten fairly precisely, perhaps even to the inch. And all of that would be "facts".

But none of those "facts" matters one iota in answering the question of whether it is a good idea to try to jump from the top of Mt Everest to the top of K2. The answer to which question you knew both before and after you learned the "facts."

Likewise you are using a lot of space simply to say that what you are doing has uses in medical research. However the question is not that but whether that end justifies the means used. And the only thing relevant to this you mention(in a manner so obscurely as to make most readers fail to catch that)is the claim that stem-cell research does not necessarily lead to baby-farming. Maybe so, maybe not. But if you are going to argue the rightness of your position you have to argue more about that sort of thing, and not simply posit a lot of trivia which sums up to facts we already knew. To claim that your scientific facts supersede a moral quandry is simply to claim the absolutism of science. Which as a side note is absurd as science which cannot exist without honesty, cannot exist without morality.

Danny M

In terms of ethical research, not fabrication of findings, I agree with you Lee. Peer review and other researchers duplicating results as told in Journal articles is a must. Scientists at the University of Minnesota know this, as one of their own was recently slapped down for fabrication of results.

It does nothing, except soil name of sound research, to claim a step forward without proof of such. Nevertheless, actual treatment of diseases and assistance in repairing injuries must be shown to work in test animals before ever coming close to human therapies. Perhaps in time we can understand the mechanisms to reverse-engineer our own skin cells into iPSc (induced pluripotent stem cells), without using viral vectors to change their genetic code. As it stands now, we don't have that kind of an understanding of how to properly regress these cells in a viable manner. Let alone have the ability to create enough cells for therapies with ease, today the creation of even a 96-well plate of cell colonies is extremely taxing in terms of work and time required for maintaining the cells in an undifferentiated state.

What I am saying is that ethics has to come into play, and moral concerns should not be a secondary thought. Honestly, if you look at the level of detail in the first draft of the NIH guidelines for stem cell research they raised many points about having checks in place to make sure the research did not, "get ahead of itself." Going too far in the view of most groups involved in stem cell research. This article seems to be focused on the newly approved government funding, so I focused my energy on replying to that.

As it stands, by using these cells as models, we can find out the genes involved in chromosomal diseases such as sickle cell, and specifically at Johns Hopkins, Rett Syndrome. In the case of the latter, we know that mutations take place in a single protein, mecp2, but we do not have an understanding as to which genes are effected by this mutation. To go beyond the clinical research, and into the actual protein interactions for such diseases would be a boon.

I believe most all researchers in this field, at least those at research institutions in california, wisconsin, new york & Maryland, know that if they do not conclusively show proof of their findings then this field will remain a joke to so many.

I doubt we will need to use humans to foster other humans, but as it stands now, we don't understand the cellular mechanisms behind these cells enough to get viable treatments for many diseases. The few that are effective now are mostly for the repair of damaged bones/organs, or for those individuals with extremely rare and highly debilitating diseases, in which the treatment requires wiping out a majority of their cells with chemotherapy in order to transplant stem cells effectively (which is a treatment that has shown success in patients with the most severe forms of Multiple Sclerosis).

I see this research as taking well over a decade to deduce therapeutic gains for many patients. However, proof is there for the viability of these treatments in animals, as shown by vets in Florida using stem cells to repair broken bones in dogs/horses. The research has to be done in a methodical, well documented manner. I argue that in research institutions in the United States there are ethical concerns which are not just shoved to the side for the sake of research. Progress is slow, but providing funding isn't going to kill off our children. To link this field of research to the German use of epigenetics is an extreme reach.

As to the point of the data I presented, there are many. The link between cancer stem cells as a cause for the issue of cancer relapse in patients is a major finding. If we can find a way to eliminate these cancer stem cells at their source in the niches they reside in, we could avoid having to use such things as wide-ranging chemotherapy and a litany of prescription drugs. To have a specifically targeted treatment for diseases, instead of having to rely on current methods, would be a massive boon for medical treatments. Not to say the results will come tommarrow, or even therapeutic gains in a decade, but by having the government fund such research you can have investigators who can spend the years necessary to learn the mechanisms. This avoids one of the current pitfalls in this field of research, the fact that many private institutions need to find result and therapeutic applications quickly, to get a turn around on their grants. The government funding sound, well documented and highly regulated research is an avenue I want to see explored, for the simple fact that the government does not need to find results quickly, they can simply help fund the finding of good data over a long time span. The means used today at NIH are simple, the research has to be shown to be effective in a number of laboratory animals, which means we have to show gains in many test subjects before human trials come into play.

I don't think I posted trivia, I posted current research, not the stuff of legend or falsehoods. Unless you think using mice as models for this research, well before using larger animals, is baby-farming. I am not arguing against adult stem cells, as these are probably the closest for viable therapies in the near future. However, I am arguing that to turn out back on embryonic stem cell research would remove the option to better understand how these cells develop, in order to gain more from other stem cell types. It is an interconnected field of research, but the main gain I see from embryonic stem cell research is to use it as a tool to understand the cellular mechanisms at work. Once we understand the question of how they work, we can tackle the questions of when we can use them for therapeutic gains, no?

Jason Taylor

It is trivia, Danny because it is as you specifically pointed out just now intended to prove a point that is not disputed, that there are potential medical benefits. What is in dispute is whether it is worth the cost.

Regis Nicoll

Dan-- As Lee and Jason have aptly noted, the "letter I came across" was not primarily a critique on the potential benefits of ESCR, but on their costs. Given the scientifically undisputed fact that a genetically complete human being is created at the moment of conception, is it morally justifiable to cannibalize a human being at its earliest stage for its parts? If it is, why not at a later stage; say, a 6 mo. fetus, or a 6 mo child...or a 60-yr old adult?

This whole ESCR business has the pro-choice machine absolutely apoplectic: if it is morally wrong to kill an embryo for the health of the many, how can one be killed for the "health" of the mother?

Also, as pointed out in "the letter," the commodification of human beings extends to women. According to the RAND Institute, there are only about 11,000 embryos available for research . To provide therapies for an estimated 1 to 2 million cases per year, the shortfall would need to be made up through in vitro fertilization which requires eggs, and a lot of them.

Estimates run as high as 100 eggs to produce a single useful embryo. Even under optimistic conditions, tens of millions of eggs would be required each year to take care of all the desired therapies. That’s why pro-choice feminists have criticized such practices as an “unethical mass experimentation on women and children” that treats “humans like interchangeable manufactured objects and commodities.”

And with the numerous successes of adult stem therapies and with the development of induced pluripotent cells, even cloning pioneer Iam Wilmut has given up on ESCR.

Danny M

So that is your real intent Regis, making this about abortion rights. Removing the fact that government investigators are using mice as models for disease, which is also, "embryonic stem cell research". The NIH guidelines require trials to then go through rabbits, goats, monkeys and at the end of the tunnel of trials are humans. As it stands with your argument, we would be better off to cut off our nose to spite our face?

Here is a recent example of embryonic stem cell research, IN MICE, being successful:


We need to go through the proper avenues of research to find out what works and what does not, simply having trials without having the documented studies to show their success, can lead to tumor growth in patients. The last thing we would want is to make someone who is seriously ill even worse. However, if we can build upon sound results, we could help to reduce the recovery time for a number of surgeries, such as heart transplants. We start in mice, we show sound data, we build upon this and then we'll have embryonic stem cell therapies that are effective. It's not a panacea, it will take years of building up through model organisms to reach the success levels that we can have with a handful of adult stem cell (SC) therapies. However, adult SC therapies are extremely limited in the scope of their usefulness, and will do little to nothing for a number of medical concerns such as heart failure and the regrowth of neurons to repair a damaged spinal cord.

I pose this, is it worth the risk of not discovering a non-invasive form of treatment for medical issues such as heart defects, cancer, Alzheimers (let alone other neurological diseases which we have little to no treatment for currently) and the like? Should we not proceed, with caution? Should we not support trials based in sound science, by investigators who take into consideration the ethical choice to not lie about false hopes in their results, but to find the hard answers?

The real question is not IF you support this field, it is HOW we can proceed with moral and ethical concerns taken into consideration. I believe that by having many checks in place, in the form of government regulations requiring multiple trials in test animals before coming anywhere near the idea of human therapies, is a very good place to start. Plus, we need to understand how to best utilize the cells we culture, so their acceptance rate into the target location in the body is maximized and the chance for tumorgenesis (formation of tumors from injected cells differentiating without control) is removed.

Regis Nicoll

Dan--I am merely pointing out that ESCR has direct implications for the abortion industry. In both cases, the most basic liberty -- the right to life -- is taken away from the most powerless, voiceless class of human beings. That ESCR will follow "NIH guidelines" with animal trials and "documented studies" is quite beside the point. If all that goes swimmingly, the "end of the tunnel," as you admit, is humans -- and that involves the involuntary sacrifice of one human life for another. Again, I ask, if it is OK to sacrifice a 7-day old embryo, why not a 7 mo fetus or 7 mo child, or...

Ben W

LeeQuod, as Regis made the choice to do a take-off of Screwtape Letters, he also chose the tone. The fact that it's a knock off of a famous book doesn't mean it's not intended to be incendiary. Regis can be a bit heavy on the rhetoric, quite mixed up on the facts, and perhaps more eager to polarize than convince. He downplays or denies any success of embryonic stem cell research, and ignores their vital importance in understanding adult stem cells. He implies that IVF babies aren't really human, since they are also created by an "asexual business relationship" "between a donor, a host, and a doctor". He's a bit confused about how many eggs would be needed for treatments - saying "under optimistic conditions, tens of millions of eggs would be required each year" when in reality we don't have any idea yet how many stem cell lines will be needed - or even if embryos will have to be destroyed to create these lines, since researchers are working on ways to create new embryonic stem cell lines without hurting the embryos.

And anyways, embryonic stem cells aren't human beings. They can't hear, smell, taste, feel, or see; they can't think. They can't feel pain, or anything else. If I showed you one, you wouldn't be able to distinguish it from a mouse cell, and if you asked the cell if it wanted to live, it wouldn't be capable of forming an opinion or giving an answer.. despite all this, embryonic cells have the potential to *become* human beings. Just as a canvas isn't a painting, an embryonic stem cell isn't a person.

If it makes you feel better, I'd feel happy to donate some of my DNA - you can put it half into each an egg and sperm, and then let them unite, creating an embryonic stem cell that's not even a new person by your definition. It would be "scientifically" (genetically) just part of me.

Gina Dalfonzo

Incendiary? That's pushing it, I think. Infernal, yes. :-)

As for your second paragraph, Ben, I thought you might like to know that Chuck Colson will be addressing that very issue on BreakPoint Radio before long. I'm not sure exactly when, but I'll post the link when it becomes available.

Jason Taylor

Well in traditional representation, hell is kind of incendiary...

Regis Nicoll

Ben -- Your claim that "embryonic stem cells aren't human beings," doesn't square with medical science. When a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell, they cease to exist, forming a wholly new thing: a genetically complete, and unique human being. As Harvard Medical School’s Micheline Matthews-Roth told the U.S. Congress: “In biology and in medicine, it is an accepted fact that the life of any individual organism reproducing by sexual reproduction begins at conception.” She went on to state, “It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception…and that this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”

Humanness is determined by our design, not our abilities which are affected by stage of development or decline, disease and injury.

The same goes for non-human life; say, of a flower. Its membership into a species of flora is determined by its genetic makeup, not its maturation from seedling to functional plant, or whether it's been damaged by blight, or by a curious child plucking one of its petals.

Regis Nicoll

And, oh -- "The letter" makes no implications of the humanness of IVF children. Because of the "F" in IVF, it is still a sexual procedure in that it involves the germ cells of both man and woman. Cloning, on the other hand, is completely asexual, requiring neither a man nor a union of germ cells.

Jason Taylor

So is in-virtro with a hireling prostitution? Not being argumentative, just wondering about the ethical implications.

Danny M

Danny, the ACT article was published June 11th. Regis created his posting three days prior. Even if the article disproves Regis's position, how was he to know? Furthermore, I see that clinical trials on humans are just beginning.

However, just to show some goodwill I'll never sing "Three Blind Mice" ever again... :-)

Regis Nicoll

Dan--Despite the fact that recent clinical trials on animals have been encouraging, the fact remains that...

"over the last few decades, adult stem therapies have been successful in dozens of maladies including various cancers, auto-immune diseases, cardiovascular damage, stroke, metabolic disorders, and skeletal injuries. Embryonic research, on the other hand, while high on promise, has failed to produce a single cure or medical treatment."

Even the NIH admits as much:

But, at the risk of repeating myself, "'The Letter' is not primarily about the benefits of ESCR, but about their costs. Given the scientifically undisputed fact that a genetically complete human being is created at the moment of conception, is it morally justifiable to cannibalize a human being at its earliest stage for its parts?

And so, for third time, I ask you, "If it is, why not at a later stage; say, a 6 mo. fetus, or a 6 mo child...or a 60-yr old adult?"



Quote from the LETTER
"...this stem cell business takes upwards of 100 eggs to produce one viable research line. I trust that you can see where this leads: With the millions of cures being sought, and the limited number of eggs a woman produces in her fertile life, ...."

I find it AMAZING that about 400,000 EXTRA fertilized embryos just happen to have been overproduced.

That MEANS also---that LOTS of women were OVERBLASTED with the fertility drugs in the BIG DOLLAR FUTURE BIG POWER industry.

(PS "Have you taken fertility drugs? is now a question on two womens risk assessment questionnaires I filled out in recent years...)

(An anecdote... my sister in law kicked into SUPER EARLY Menopause shortly after her invitro procedure...where they OVERBLAST the WOMAN with lots of fertility drugs in order to overstimulate the usual one egg per month production in women.)

Thus, maybe the demonic designers should move women's egg production issues over to the Dept. of Agriculture while we're at it!!!


NOW we can buy & sell the abortion/embryonic byproducts. From a little noted footnite to Pres. Obama's May 9 stem cell order...

"(b) Executive Order 13435 of June 20, 2007, which supplements the August 9, 2001, statement on human embryonic stem cell research, is revoked."
A little clip from the NOW REVOKED 2007 Exec Order 13435

"...c) the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that

no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit

of another;

(d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species,

are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and


Stock market investors---TAKE NOTE! Two new commodities have now entered the market. And the $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ one can make if one gets a patent on a cure is---fantastic!


Have to leave this most important discussion...

Must re watch---
BOYS FROM BRAZIL movie (esp. the edited TV version -slightly more family friendly)

and ponder HG WELL's great secular prophetic SCIENCE statement in "THE ISLAND of DR. MOREAU"

jason taylor

One might be careful with the word "demonic". It is potentially true. It may even be true in some cases. But actually calling people(as opposed to actions)"demonic" is something to be very careful about. Besides the fact that a real demon has already put himself beyond the possibility of repentance and therefore arguing would be superfluous.

In controversy there is always a balance between the extremes of indifference and unchivalry.

Ben W

Regis, if I may attempt to answer your question, I'd say that a 6-month old fetus is close to being a person (if not one already), while a 3-day old zygote is not. As has been said before, personhood is about so much more than just genetics (just look at twins).

To turn your question around, if you're okay with using (and killing) adult or iP stem cells, which are physically separate but genetically the same as their "parents", why aren't you okay with killing twins (particularly twin embryos)?

PS - apologies to any posters to whom I didn't reply.. I'm finally back in the country.

Regis Nicoll

Ben- Your claim that “a 6-month old fetus is close to being a person (if not one already)…” is a personal opinion (and a fine piece of fence-sitting, at that!) which is at odds with medical fact (as I mentioned earlier). And, I suspect that if you were unconvinced by the science, you’ll be less inclined to accept what the Bible has to say on the matter.

Nevertheless, the psalmist’s confession that “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” reveals that he was not only a human being at conception, but one under the judgment of sin.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, medical science and Scripture are in agreement when human life begins. The only question is whether we will respect and protect the divine endowments of humankind, at all stages of development and decline.

Ben W

Regis, I think you keep conflating "a member of the human species" with "a human person". My dead skin cells are members of the human species, but don't deserve civil rights. And again, how does your "medical definition" of life deal with twins, or non-embryonic groups of stem cells?

From an exegetical standpoint, surely you know that setting up doctrine based on Psalms is iffy. It's easy to find other verses in Psalms that would make most Christians cringe if used as standards of morality. I think you're basically quote mining, since you're just finding verses that support your position and ignoring others.

Regis Nicoll

Ben—You are conflating somatic cells with embryos. An adult skin, bone marrow, umbilical cord, etc. cell is neither an actual nor potential embryo and, hence, not “a member of the human species.” The only way one can become so is by manipulation--taking its genetic material and placing it into a de-nucleated egg cell – a process, otherwise known as, cloning.

As to when human life begins—it is not according to my definition, but that of the medical community; for example: "By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception." (Dr. Hymie Gordon, Chairman, Department of Genetics at the Mayo Clinic)

And if I’m guilty of “quote mining,” so were many of the early Church Fathers who summarily condemned the taking of life in utero. See:

So, on what scientific or biblical basis do you conclude that a six-month fetus “may be” a human being and a 3 day old embryo not?


Ben W - Can you please explain the thought process that went into producing the statement, "My dead skin cells are members of the human species"? Maybe it's just because of the definition I'm reading into the word "members" (and that I never took biology in school??), but the statement doesn't make sense to me. The distinction between "a member of the human species" and "a human person" escapes me.

I'm curious to know how it is that a being can be biologically human, but not be a human person. Can you explain? I'm assuming you're assignment of "personhood" goes beyond the biological to the legal and other realms?

I'm not being sarcastic, I just don't understand your position.

Ben W

Regis, if adult stem cells are not human, what species are they? And you're still not answering my question as it regards twins, either.

The reason I'm harping on other types of stem cells is that they are separate beings, and only chemically a little different from twin embryos. With the right chemical signals it might certainly be possible to get these to have the same potential for creating a new life as embryonic stem cells. In short, they share the same ethical problems.

About your quote from Dr. Gordon ("life is present from the moment of conception") - Why not go further? Sperm and egg cells are also alive, so life is certainly also present before conception. But more importantly, even if you mean "a genetically distinct and complete human" life, it's still meaningless (and no one disagrees with you, also), since being a human person is so much more than being genetically distinct. Human persons have rights, not human cells.

TimS, a common argument in the abortion debate is about when someone becomes a human person. Typically, a pro-choicer says "a 2-day old fertilized egg isn't a human person", and the pro-lifer responds with "If it isn't human, what species is it?" This reply pretty much misses the point. While the union of an egg and sperm makes a new genetically distinct human cell, it's not clear that this cell is a person. Personhood is defined by (at least 1 of) consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, self-awareness, and the capacity to communicate. My skin cells are genetically human (and genetically members of the human species), but lack all of the aspects of personhood.

(PS - when I said "member", I just meant that the cells were biologically human. Hope this clears it up).

Ben W

Here's some links on the potential for using iPS cells (a kind of non-embryonic stem cells) for cloning:


If iPS cells have the same potential to grow into a human being as embryos, wouldn't it be just as wrong to use them?

Regis Nicoll

Ben—Differentiated cells, while undeniably alive and human, are not genetically complete and unique human “beings.” Again, unlike embryos, the only way they can become so is by human intervention and manipulation which, you yourself acknowledge. And, it could be argued, that one so constructed is more of a human creation than human being; but I’ll let that pass.

More to the point -- if the intrinsic worth of a human "being" depends on something other than being human (like, your subjective attributes of “personhood”), then the decision of who will be admitted into the human race will be determined by the power class. And, as history has amply shown, the issue of human rights become subject to tyranny, whether of the despot or the 51% vote, leading to such things as slavery, Dred Scott, the eugenics movements, and Holocaust. Without an objective, transcendent basis for human rights, there is no barrier to such injustices and horrors.

In fact, a six-day embryo, six-day newborn, a six-year old child in a temporary coma, and a 60-yr old adult under general anesthesia could be equally excluded from the human race and denied their human rights according to your criteria of personhood. Peter Singer has famously used “personhood” to argue that parents should be given a trial period after the birth of a child to decide whether to “terminate” it. If nothing else, you have to give credit to Singer for taking the argument of "personhood" to its logical conclusion.


Ben W, thank you for your response. From the meaning you apply to personhood, I think I see how you can arrive at your position - that personhood is not some objective attribute applied outright to any and all human beings, but is rather conferred by degrees based upon subjective evaluations of relative development, ability to reason, capacity to communicate, etc. I also think I understand that, as you use the term, personhood is a legal status, not a state of being. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding your position.

I have to agree with Regis's concerns about using subjective measures to assign personhood. According to the attributes you mention for granting personhood, I'm concerned that my in-laws, both of whom suffered from dementia in their final years, would no longer have been considered persons deserving of protection, dignity and respect. This troubles me.

Ben W

Regis, if we ever meet another sentient species, or stumble across the secret to Artificial Intelligence, will those beings be worthless (or worth less) simply because they're not human? Genetics is as arbitrary a way of determing worth as any. Defining value by personhood is not arbitrary, as it is these abilities that give us our worth, not the order of some chemicals in the nuclei of our cells.

I don't think that Singer thinks that an embryo, newborn, child and adult (the last two in comas/asleep) are all equivalent. Nor would I agree if he did! Newborns have the capacity to feel pain or pleasure, to be conscious, whereas an embryo does not.

It's a fallacy to say that having an unrepresented class of people will lead to Holocausts. Adolescents can't vote, but it's illegal to murder them. However, even if we did decide to give embryos the right to vote, I don't think you could ever get any response out of them, nor are they even capable of forming preferences or opinions.

Ironically, it seems you would value human beings cloned from skin cells less than ones made the old-fashioned way. Why is this? (I'm not advocating cloning by any means; this is hypothetical).

jason taylor

In any case does not the case for Stem Cell research rest on the assumption that it will be used for something good? Could it not just as easily be made into an attempt to create the twenty first century equiv of a "River Tam"? In fact given human history is that not quite likely?

Regis Nicoll

Ben-- It is not our "abilities that give us our worth" but our Design, as the Imago Dei. The Imago Dei is about our in-built potential, not our actualized competences. Else, a 6 week infant or 6 yr old Downs child, with unformed or diminished powers of rational thought, moral reasoning, etc, would be less human than 21 yr old adult. (That's an argument Singer makes.) Likewise, according to your pain criterion, a leper with extreme insensitivity to pain, would be less human than a person with a "normal" pain threshold. In fact, the pain standard is used by PETA and other misantropic entities to advance civil rights for animals and plants.


Ben W wrote: "Regis, if we ever meet another sentient species"

I'm not sure we'd recognize them: http://individual.utoronto.ca/augustbattiston/archives/dolphin_cartoon.gif

It's disturbing to me that part of the promise of SETI is to make humans less unique.

But more disturbing is the idea that you have to earn, and keep, your personhood. It's quite reminiscent of Dred Scott. And any one of us is one car accident away from being a non-person; was my son there when he was in a coma for a week and a half?

Ben W

Regis, what is the Imago Dei? It's certainly not our DNA, since God is not a human. Rather, it is in the abilities to form relationships, to discover truth about the world, and to know the difference between right and wrong. A 1-cell fertilized egg has none of these capacities. On the other hand, a person with dementia, or in a coma, or who is asleep does have all of these abilities, but they are temporarily suspended or damaged. As a car is still a car when turned off, these persons are still persons. Likewise, a leper still has full consciousness and personhood, even if their ability to feel pain is inhibited (this ability is just the first and simplest ability relevant to personhood, and I was simplifying its importance for the sake of the conversation).

LQ, you don't have to earn your personhood. It's not something you *do*, it's something you are.

TimS, personhood is certainly gained by degrees, but this doesn't make it subjective. Nor am I talking about it as a legal status, but as God-given (or not given) capacities, and as a state of being. (For that matter, fetuses don't have legal status as persons right now.. I think that all of us are talking about morality, not laws).

Regis, did you hear about the case of Baby K? This was a baby with anencephaly, a medical condition that caused her to develop with almost no brain, only with the minimum needed to control respiration, heartbeat, etc, and to keep her alive. These babies do not have the capacity to develop a normal brain, and so will never become conscious, feel pain, talk, etc. Usually such children die quickly, but the hospital was able to keep Baby K alive for 2 1/2 years.
Now, the parents have two choices in the case of anencephaly: keep the baby alive as long as possible or allow the child to die. Keeping the child alive is very labor-intensive, and uses up valuable medical resources that could be going to healthier, "normal" children (such as premies). But allowing the child might imply that you value "normal" babies more. Which would you choose?


Likewise, on the same subject of the "value of human life" - am I reading you correctly, that you would value cloned humans less than humans made the old-fashioned way?

Rolley Haggard

Ben W, I have to wonder what motivates you (or anyone) to want to conclude that “a person is not a person” until he/she/it has “the abilities to form relationships, to discover truth about the world, and to know the difference between right and wrong.”

Why would you want to speculate over a question which, if wrong, amounts to condoning murder?

Whatever happened to the idea of “reasonable doubt”, where the burden of proof is placed on the party whose allegation, if false, will result in the death of an innocent person?

Do you really think it is more responsible to say, “I’m not 100% convinced that a fetus is a person, and therefore, on that basis, I think it’s ok to abort”, rather than “Until there is proof that a fetus is not a person, I must conclude that abortion is the taking of the life of an innocent human being”?

Why the reluctance to err on the safe side of such a profound moral question?

Please tell me, what motivates such thinking?

Regis Nicoll

Ben-- "[The Imago Dei] is in the abilities to form relationships, to discover truth about the world, and to know the difference between right and wrong. A 1-cell fertilized egg has none of these capacities." Neither does a 6-week infant, I might add.

No, the Imago Dei has to do with our immaterial divine blueprint -- our rational, moral, affective, and spiritual design, not our actualized abilities, our stage of development, or our final form corrupted by the Fall.

Thus, "Baby K" is no different from any other human being whose cognitive abilities have been damaged through disease or injury.

Clones are another matter, in my opinion. Cloning amounts to man creating man in his own image, as opposed to man and woman partnering with God in the procreation of a being in His image. Thus, in my opinion (which is at odds, I might add, with some important Christian bioethists), the jury is out on a clone's true nature.


Ben -- "personhood is certainly gained by degrees, but this doesn't make it subjective".

Were we talking about the degree to which a lake is frozen over I could agree that the determination is not subjective. The measurements to be used and the standards by which those measurements are to be applied are well established and based on physical science, which at least has the benefit of being objective. Your measures for personhood appear to be based on philosophy, psychology and sociology which are all largely subjective disciplines.

Also, it seems to me that if personhood is gained by degrees that it must have to be something that is earned, in so far as it is conferred upon someone based upon the degree to which they conform to human measures of it. I would also argue that if it can be gained, it can also be lost. You argue to the contrary, claiming that persons with dementia, in a coma, or asleep "have all of these abilities, but they are temporarily suspended or damaged." Yet how does their temporary state of being differ from the temporary state of being of a 1-cell fertilized egg or a 6 month fetus which have yet to attain the capacities for personhood?


Ben W,

You argue that personhood is "something you are", that it is "gained by degrees", and that it is "not subjective" (and thus, presumably, objective.)

If this is true, then I would expect you to be able to order the following beings from least personed to most personed (all are genetically human). I'd be interested to know how you would order these, and what objective qualifiers you would use to make that ordering.
3 month old fetus- in utero
60 year old adult- under general anesthesia
98 year old adult- with severe dementia
3 day old embryo
Terri Schiavo
6 month old fetus- in utero
6 month old fetus- delivered prematurely
6 year old child - severely developmentally disabled
6 year old child - average development
6 year old child - intellectually precocious
10 year old child - severely autistic
Baby K
30 year old adult - mute, deaf, blind, and quadrapalegic

Rolley Haggard

Ben W,

This Bud’s for you…. http://www.informz.net/pfm/archives/archive_805161.html .



Ben W

Rolley, how would you argue to a Buddhist that killing animals isn't murder? How would you respond to "why would you want to speculate over a question which, if wrong, amounts to condoning murder?"

For me, it comes down to "what reasons do I have to believe that abortion is murder?" And I haven't found any satisfyingly solid reasons. It's not biblically based (in the proof-texting sense), and it doesn't jibe with any logic-based standard of personhood. Thirty-five years ago, most evangelicals didn't even care about abortion (even after Roe v. Wade), so it seems nearly "pop Theology" for most Protestants.

At some point, we're just convinced enough that it's *not* murder (you for animals, me for cells), and considering what we'd have to give up, we move forward. If there were no costs to anyone, I'd err on the safe sides of both vegetarianism and abortion.

TimS, I don't believe that the criteria for personhood are subjective, but their application would be. On the other hand, granting rights to all human organisms is easy and objective to apply, but the standard is subjective - Why all humans? Why humans and not other creatures? etc. The reasons usually come back to particular interpretations of the Bible, which isn't very useful for convincing objective outsiders.

The difference between a sleeping person and 1-cell egg is that a sleeping person has memories, relationships, and is not directly depending on anyone else for their survival. I'd like to take the Baby K example a little further, and apply the same case to an adult - someone whose brain is completely destroyed, or in a That Hideous Strength-esque example, someone who had their head cut off in a car accident but whose body is being kept alive by new medicine (since this is what life support almost amounts to in extreme cases). If you really just had a headless body, is there any point in keeping it alive? Wouldn't it be better to give the organs to people who need them and move on? Is there *any* way in which a headless body is still a person?

Extreme cases of life support are very similar - except that not all of the head is gone, only the parts that matter. Of course if you have unlimited money to spend on healthcare, there's no harm in keeping the body alive.. but we obviously don't have that in the U.S.

Thanks to all of you for the interesting discussion.. I've realized that some aspects of this I haven't thought out too much, so I should do some reading and thinking. (And Rolley, you never said you were a meat-eater, so apologies if I took too many liberties in my assumptions).

Rolley Haggard

Ben W,

Some additional fast food for thought (hotdogs for me, carrot sticks for you) =)

Re abortion being murder, you stated, “It's not biblically based (in the proof-texting sense)”.

No? Seems to me if we appeal to biblical proof-texts for even a little bit of input on this, the scales tip to the “human personhood begins at conception” view. For example –

Luke (who, as you know, was a doctor) wrote –

Luke 1:36 – “Elizabeth has also conceived *a son* in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.” Note it doesn’t say she conceived that which would *become* a son, but a son.

Luke 1:41 – “When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the *baby* leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Again, it refers to the unborn JtB as if he were a person, irrespective of which side of the birth canal he was on.

As for differentiating between humans and animals I can think of plenty of statements direct from God’s lips (both OT and NT) to “kill and eat” animals, whereas His universal dictum regarding human life (except in cases of necessity such as just wars and defense of the innocent) is “thou shalt not kill” (i.e., murder).

Finally, if I were arguing with someone who thought killing animals was morally equivalent to killing people, I’d try to steer clear of the beef-versus-broccoli questions and focus on the real meat of the matter (oops, sorry), namely who was Jesus Christ, and why should I consider taking Him and His words (the bible) seriously.

I hope that I would also try to wash his feet – in whatever particular manifestation of that servant-act might be most credible to him of my genuine respect, concern, and love.

But to attempt to influence someone’s worldview by spending a lot of energy debating incidentals is like trying to raze a skyscraper with a pair of tweezers, starting at the penthouse. Life is too short.

Say, could you pass the mustard?

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