War (on Stem Cells): What is It Good For?

Reader Davery sent in this link to a Slate article on Obama’s recent reversal of the Bush administration’s ban on stem cell research: Winning Smugly: You just won the stem-cell war. Don’t lose your soul.

First of all, if you’re new to Slate the main thing to remember is that they earn their ad revenue by being contrarian. If you say torture is bad, they’ll argue that sometimes it’s good. If you liked Wall-E’s message, they’ll find someone to say it was a terrible message. If they say Suze Orman is terrible, then . . . well, they’ll also say she’s got some great ideas. Whether or not you agree with any of that, the point is that this is the purpose Slate serves.

So, it’s no surprise that they found William Saletan to tell us crazy liberals to just calm the hell down. Saletan is concerned because:

Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form.

This sounds a bit like Saletan believes that an embryo is a homunculus, a tiny person waiting inside to grow larger and emerge from the womb. If he believes that the entire person is contained within an embryo, then surely crushing some acorns would be as upsetting as clear-cutting an old-growth forest. It’s not, though, because we understand that a seed is not an organism – it’s only different from other cells because of the possibilities we imagine for it.

Remarkably, buried within the article is the sentence that renders the point moot:

It seems worse to let the girl die for the embryo’s sake than to kill the embryo for the girl’s sake, particularly since embryos left over from fertility treatments will be discarded or left to die, anyway.

That’s what this decision was really about: whether or not we can use trashed embryos to save countless lives. Saletan’s entire argument is based on a slippery slope: if we allow testing on embryos that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage, we’ll soon allow embryos to be created and destroyed for testing purposes. And then, and then, and then, who knows? This argument is familiar to those fighting for equal rights for homosexuals, since really the only non-Bible-based argument against allowing gays to marry is to argue that next thing you know, ducks will be marrying oysters. In this case, the only non-Bible-based argument against making use of someone’s garbage is that next thing you know, we’ll be ransacking orphanages in search of unwitting organ donors.

Saletan calls this a “war” as a way to tie all those ideas together, insinuating that now that we’ve won we’ll have our ugly way with stem cells and abuse morality as we see fit. But that’s not true: there are still strict regulations in place, and people will carefully weigh the options at every stage, as they should.

At the current stage, I’ll go out on a limb and say that there is not a damn thing that is immoral about testing on trashed embryos. Further, it was outrageously immoral to allow embryos to go to waste in the name of morality when those cells could so positively affect our lives. This wasn’t a war – it was a crime, which we’ve finally stopped.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I try to stop myself from dribbling fawning as much as I can, but:

    Rebecca Watson®! Removes 99.9% of horseshit… effortlessly!

  2. I am sure someone said this but I’ll say it again. If we want to get technical about a self contained person in side the embryo, then the person throwing them away is a murderer in the first place. And isn’t that the insane argument followed by Octumom…She planted 8 babies so that none would die. I am not qualified to discuss all of that medical stuff…but I also have a question. If every embryo is a person and I, a woman get 200 eggs at the beginning of my life,does that make me pregnant all my life? I mean with 200 babies…and since one dies EVERY MONTH. What’s that mean? Does that mean that God designed me to have a baby die in me every month? That seems like faulty design…I need an upgrade.
    Having posed my idiot question I now say….. it seems to me that what is being done with dying embryos is more humane than the natural process of miscarriage – monthly. There’s no way that having 200 spare eggs could be worth a shit…unless we, the scientific community could eventually find a way to make some of those toilet-tragedies become viable and beneficial to the whole.
    And whilst I’m on me soapbox…If one chooses to believe in a Godly concept…then I wonder if there is a soul in all 200 of my eggs. I think that we can’t prove that. And I don’t think an intelligent being would design such a tragedy. I mean make souls that will never mature? I don’t know about that one.
    I know that research is important. I suspect that we “throw the baby out with the bath water” when we assume that control is important because of what mankind can imagine. Do the research and trust that we won’t be raiding orphanages for spare body parts. I applaud Mr Obama’s move.

  3. I knew this would be Saletan. Worst. science reporter. ever.

    He’s the main reason I stopped reading Slate.

  4. Ugh, I read a wingnut comment about embryonic stem cells on another website that was a new kind of crazy to me. She seemed to think that all stem cells become tumors and that tumor monster freaks would be created by science and unleashed upon humanity.

  5. “Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form.”

    Wow. That sounds … juvenile.

  6. As an advocate for criminalizing wet dreams, I find stem-cell research an abomination of the highest order.

    Sperm are the sine quibus non of humans, as are ova. Sperm banks and fertility clinics, therefore, immorally destroy that which is fundamentally human. They should be outlawed.

    Cells are the sine quibus non of sperm and ova. Therefore, cells are the foundation of humans. They are essentially just little humans, not yet fully formed — it’s the division and replication of these foundational cells that make a human. Anything that destroys cells, like chemotherapy, should be outlawed.

    I could keep going. I haven’t even gotten close to atoms yet.

    If only Mr. Saletan were as devoted to his ideology as would make him not a hypocrite. (Of course, the anticipated response: “But that’s different!”) Perhaps it is different. As different, maybe, as marrying a fellow human being with the same sorts of genitalia and a human marrying a canine.

  7. @virginskepchick: First off I feel I should point out that there is a slight difference between an egg and a fertilized egg. In that one is fertilized and the other isn’t. However, the modifying the question to one about all the fertilized eggs that fail to implant would work.

  8. Also,

    But…but…what if they make a human-canine hybrid with these stem cells? And what if a man and a man-dog want to get married? The world will surely end!

  9. I’m gonna start a Rescue Group for discarded and abandoned embryos.

    I’ll even run commercials on EWTN. “for the price of a cup of coffee a day, you can sponsor this poor embryo, help it get an education, help it have a future!”

  10. Good gawd, ya’ll!

    Yeah, got to love that line of logic. My new plan is to start campaigning against marriage for anybody whatsoever! After all, allowing straight marriage would eventually lead to gay marriage which will lead to ducks and oysters getting married. Once marriage is outlawed, I’ll start campaigning against anything happening at all (because if people are allow to do stuff with other people they might form friendships, and soon they’ll want to get married, and you know what that will lead to). When the universe is finally a featureless void in which nothing ever happens, my mission will be complete and that slippery slope argument will finally be put to rest.

  11. Another reason to dislike Saletan’s article is his very poor analogy of stem cell research to torture. He quotes Karl Rove saying, “In a war, you do not take tools that are working and stop using them,” meaning that torture is a useful tool that Obama has taken away, endangering the country. Saletan claims that “liberals” are using Karl Rove’s logic to support stem cell research. The one big difference: torture is NOT a useful tool. Correct me if I’m wrong, skeptics, but a few years ago I researched this topic and found that torture was extremely ineffective at collecting truthful information. The victim is more likely to tell a lie to get out of the situation than to hand over real intelligence. Not only is torture morally wrong, it doesn’t even work. Stem cell research might be approaching a moral gray area, even for liberals, but at least it has the promise of providing a real benefit.

  12. @JasonB: actually, as ridiculous as it sounds, someone has beaten you to the punch:
    what i don’t understand is why these people don’t take a vocal, public stance against the fertility practices that create all these embryos in the first place. if they are so concerned about the situation, you’d think they’d try to prevent it entirely, rather than crusading against the logical step of trying to create some good from what would otherwise go to waste.

  13. I heard M. Night Shyamalan will get more heavy-handed than usual
    for the sequel to The Sixth Sense. Little Cole will get a microscope for his birthday and claim: “I see discarded stem cells.”

  14. @Imrryr: I love this idea. I hate slippery slope arguments. I’m adding this to my bag of tricks. If we accept situation X but someone argues we can’t change that in favor of Y because Y leads to Z which is more depraved than anything you’ll ever see in the depths of Japanese pornography, then I argue vehemently that X is the death of us all because it, too inevitably leads to Y. OBVIOUSLY there’s no such thing as a stable intermediate position, only the way things are now and a swamp of shit at the bottom of the slope.

    … I think I must be a dork, I get more worked up about how people argue than what they argue. I suppose that’s because I think that if people restricted themselves to reasonable arguments, it’d be really hard to hold half as many dumb ideas. It might not fix everything, but we’d be spared the freak shows of thought.

  15. If every fertilized egg was truly a human, spontaneous abortions would be the leading cause of death. If we really care about the loss of embryos, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should be spending a huge amount of research funding on preventing miscarriage–more than cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc?

  16. “””Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form.”””

    So let’s apply logic on these premises and see what happens:

    Axiom 1
    1.1) Persons have beginnings (undisputed; Slate’s assumption).
    1.2) The beginnings of a person is an embryo.
    1.3) An embryo is the “whole thing”.
    1.4) The “whole thing” is a person.

    1.5) The beginnings of a person is that person (for 1.1 to 1.4)

    1.6) Every person is self-existent and comes from no embryo.

    End of calcuations.

  17. If Saletan wants to be consistent he needs to first address the problem of creating the batch of embryos in the first place. The “slippery slope” started long before the stem cell researchers came along. Obviously the whole enterprise of artificial insemination already involves gross scientific meddling and necessitates the creation of multiple “potential humans” of which only a few shall be selected for harvest and, I might add, those selected aren’t guaranteed deliveries by any stretch. If he wants to be troubled about lost embryos then this is where Saletan needs to poke his beak.

    I mean, if these embryos contained anything approaching the moral standing of actual personhood then we’re already in the midst of an appalling microscopic holocaust and all for the mere vanity of some young people who can’t bear the thought of adoption. If he can be fine with that (as he apparently already is) then he sure as hell can live w/ stem cell research.

    Let us also note that at some point in the future the science will probably become sophisticated enough that virtually any cell w/ DNA will have the “potential” to be a human being. What happens to his argument then? Nothing, because he has no argument to begin with unless he feels every piece of tissue in the human body somehow becomes ensouled as soon as some doctor plops it into a petri dish.

    Frankly I don’t know what he’s talking about.

  18. Hello?!? Oskar Kennedy, shouldn’t this be the perfect segue back into the trenches and into another COTW? I mean, it’s WAR! Begin the low-crawling in 5….4…..3…..2…..

  19. @CarolSeidl: I think you’re forgetting the fact that miscarriages are God’s will and those women have obviously done something to deserve it.

  20. @nibblonian:
    Exactly! The embryo dies to teach the woman a lesson by…making her period perhaps slightly late and a little more crampy since she didn’t know she was pregnant.
    Seems like God’s plan has something of a flaw in it.

  21. @Indigo: BLASPHEMY!!!!! Don’t question the Lord or else he’ll do stuff to you, like bad stuff that will like….. JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS!

  22. What does embryonic heaven look like anyway? I’m picturing something like the jellyfish exhibit at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. A lot of black lights and bitchin’ electronica.

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