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Jesus wants me for a snowflake

July 19, 2006

Today George W. Bush proudly vetoed a stem cell research bill. The debates on this are old and tired now; everybody knows everybody else’s talking points, everybody has seen everybody else’s dog and pony shows.

For opponents of embryonic stem cell research, the cutest puppies and the high-steppingest colts are photos of the “snowflakes” – embryos scheduled for discard, who have been “adopted” by right-to-lifers, implanted in the adoptive mother’s womb, and in the (thereafter) natural course of things, turned into post-born babies.

Like all babies, they are of course cute as the dickens. But it’s hard to see exactly what that’s supposed to prove. They are no cuter than the already post-born babies, languishing in orphanages and crying out for homes, whom those same eager parents decided to shove aside in order to make a space in their lives for the “snowflakes.”

That’s not the only thing that bugs me about the phenomenon. The theory upon which this callous disregard of the already post-born in favor of the single frozen cell is justified has been clearly articulated: each frozen egg is already a full human person in every sense, and it would be murder to discard it with the rest of the day’s medical waste.

Okay, then – why not “adopt” the frozen egg, and never implant it? After all, there’s a reason why all those extra fertilized eggs are lying about in fertility clinics. The reason is that each infertile couple needs several eggs to work with since, once implanted, most of them fail to come to term. Less gently put, the process of implantation kills most of them.

You see where this is going. According to their own logic, the “snowflake” parents have been murdering children. On average, murdering several children to produce each bouncing, cooing child that is displayed before the Senate cameras. By their lights, how could that ever be justified? Especially when they could “adopt” dozens and dozens of frozen eggs, and keep them alive forever, just by maintaining the lab fees, for far less effort than it took them to kill several eggs, and shepherd one to adulthood.

Yes, each “snowflake” that survives the uterine gauntlet gets to do things like breathe, sleep, eat, gurgle, things it could never have done back in the petri dish. But that scarcely makes it right to kill its siblings off to give it the luxury of experiencing those things. After all, it was already a full and complete human being back in the freezer. These little add-ons are merely the kind of “quality of life” trappings that the right to life movement is always telling us pale into insignificance beside the stark difference between preserving life, and committing murder.

While I wait for those happy adoptive parents to grasp the logic of what they’ve done, and spend the rest of their natural lives curled up in a ball of horrified remorse – no doubt a very long wait – let’s turn to the latest scientific breakthrough.

Another staple of opponents of embryonic stem cell research has been the flatly false canard that adult stem cells can do anything that embryonic stem cells can do. (In reality, some kinds of adult stem cells are multipotent, coaxable into forming several kinds of tissue, but none are pluripotent as embryonic stem cells are.) But of course every gene that’s in an embryonic stem cell is present in an adult stem cell – and for that matter, present in every adult cell. Pluripotency should be a simple matter of turning on the embryonic genes that got turned off as pluripotency was lost. If only one could determine which set of genes that is.

At the end of last month, Shinya Yanamaka of Kyoto University announced the production of “embryonic-stem-cell-like cells” from adult mouse cells. They are capable of generating some tissues from each body layer (ecto-, meso-, endoderm), and pump out at least one of the proteins that appears only in embryonic stem cells. It takes a concoction of just four enzymes to pull it off. Considerable work remains to be done to double check all this, and then to try it out with human cells.

The hope is of course that, several years down the road, stem cells from this new process could replace embryonic ones, and cut the Gordian knot of the current stem cell debate. And that would be great. Stem cell research is a fine wedge issue for the left, but I’d rather see the wrangling end, and the medical miracles begin to roll in.

But would it really stop there? If there’s a magic formula for making an adult cell revert to a pluripotent form, there’s probably another magic formula that goes all the way. By providing the right nutrient bath, an adult cell could probably be made to revert to totipotent form – to the precise equivalent of a fertilized egg, capable of generating not just arbitrary tissues, but the whole organism.

Voila! – the Gordian knot retied. All that keeps a frozen embryo from becoming a baby is the lack of a nurturing environment. And at that point all that would keep any adult cell from becoming a baby is the lack of a (slightly enhanced, by a handful of extra chemicals) nurturing environment. It therefore becomes immoral, under the axioms of the Right To Life movement, not to preserve every cell of flaked skin or fallen hair root, every cell of every biopsy or excised tumor, so that the life all those pre-born babies will not be lost.

When that Rubicon of knowledge is crossed, Jesus will not just want you for a snowflake. He will want you for thousands and thousands of them.

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