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The ethics of stem cell usage

In Australia, there is currently a debate regarding the ethics of stem-cell research. In many ways, this debate shows the typical problems of scientific illiteracy and belief based intransigence, rather than anything else. Please don't misunderstand; if a member of the general public wants to be scientifically illiterate, that is their business. Similarly, if someone wants to lead their life in a rigid, dogmatically inspired manner, by all means - usual caveats about effects on others notwithstanding. However, if you are given a position as minister potentially over-seeing areas where scientific understanding is important, you don't have that luxury. Similarly, if you are making decisions which affect other people, you can't confine yourself to a black-and-white view of the world.

Now, I will first give a disclaimer and some underlying assumptions. The disclaimer: I have never worked with stem-cells, although I have some colleagues and good friends who do. The assumptions: theoretical understanding leads researchers to believe that cures for several afflictions - we'll focus on Alzheimer's and spinal injuries to simplify the argument - can be developed using embryonic stem cells. We will also assume that embryonic stem cells require the termination of an embryo (or the use of an embryo that would otherwise be terminated). Finally, we will assume that through the IVF program globally there are sufficient sources of embryonic stem cells to conduct research to determine whether cures can be found.

Remember, dear readers, that there is no right or wrong. We are dealing with shades of grey. Actually, sorry, there is wrong. Wrong is when a negative occurrence happens without a corresponding positive to (partially) offset it. There may also be right too, but if there is, why is there any debate?

I will now present a series of questions, with the occassional comment to point out what I see as the pertinent facts, and no answers - they are for each person to answer in your own minds and more importantly, in your own time.

So, the first question: if I have a food crop which I convert into a fuel, is this acceptable? You take land and food and convert to energy.

If I have a food crop which, after removing the edible parts and dealing with them appropriately, I am left with waste which I incinerate and then bury, is this acceptable? The incineration emits greenhouse gases, while burying takes a little land.

If I have a food crop which, after removing the edible parts and dealing with them appropriately, I am left with waste which I convert to fuel, is this acceptable? Use of the fuel emits more-or-less the same gases, but about the same as if an alternative fuel was used.

If multiple embryos are created, say in IVF treatment, and only one is used while the rest are discarded, is this acceptable?

If multiple embryos are created, say in IVF treatment, and only one is used while the rest are used to conduct research in general, is this acceptable?

If multiple embryos are created, say in IVF treatment, and only one is used while the rest are used to conduct research which, if successful, may give the surviving embryo a greater chance of survival or greater quality of life, is this acceptable?

If multiple embryos are created, say in IVF treatment, and only one is used while the rest are used to conduct research which, if successful, may give members of the general populace a better quality of life or a longer life, is this acceptable?

If multiple embryos are created, say in IVF treatment, and only one is used, what are acceptable justifications for their use in research rather than being discarded?

In my mind, for embryos which will be discarded anyway, they may as well be used in research. Which research becomes a more complicated question, but assuming there are sufficient to conduct all research, I would leave it as any for which the funding is available.

Anyone who says that there is no evidence the research will be successful misunderstands the two most crucial parts of research.

1) We do research to answer questions and learn stuff. If we knew the answers already, it wouldn't be worth researching. This statement is apparently more complex than I would have thought. People funding research tend not to understand this point, and so fund things which are closer to development than research, or which ask less difficult questions because they are ones they know they can answer. We should research because we don't know. The less evidence, the more need for research. So when Tony Abbott says that there is no evidence, to my ears he is saying that we must research rather than we must not.

2) Academic scientists are people. People make trade-offs. I work in academia for various reasons. Some of which include a socially-driven desire to make the world a bette rplace by increasing the pool of knowledge avalable. Some of the reasons include that I hope if I can make a couple of big discoveries, I can have a financially secure life - sort-of a high risk/high return strategy. This means that I am unlikely to embark on a course of research that I believe is likely to be unsuccessful (which is not the same as believing it is unlikely to be successful). If a scientist believes the research will be successful, is prepared to put the effort into researching it, and has the track record which is necessary to actually get the funding to do the research, this is more or less sufficient to say that the research should be carried out in the absence of more deserving projects. If there were a larger pool of funding, more of these projects should be investigated. Ethical concerns should be couched in terms of the ethics of the experiments, which, in this case, is the use of embryos which would otherwise be successful.

Now, let's say that research is carried out, is found to be wildly successful, and a much greater requirement for embryonic stem cells is required than can be obtained through discarded tissue embryo. At this point the ethics of creating an embryo for the purposes of curing an affliction need to be discussed, but they can be discussed within the context of questions such as "is it ethical to create and terminate an embryo to prevent/cure Alzheimer's in a single person?" or even "...for a 50% chance of curing Alzheimer's in a single person?" Note that, now, there is no question about the research. The research has done its job. We are now asking direct ethical questions based upon information. We can weigh the value of a single potential life vs probablistic quality/duration of life improvements for a given number of currently living people. That is what research is for. So that we can make ethical decisions based on all the information available.

What if, as treatment techniques improve, we find that one terminated embryo can improve the lives of hundreds? Thousands? Millions? But these questions can only be asked sensibly with research.

And this, dear readers, is why embryonic stem cell research must be carried out, and the relevant debates occur not now, but when we are asking sensible questions. Unless you would rather see embryos discarded to no benefit than used.

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