Spinal Confusion

...an attempt to clarify confusing and innacurate information in science articles

Friday, February 17, 2006

Newsweek Clarification

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift has a new column out discussing Senator Talent's stem cell switch and whether it will affect his re-election chances in November. The story is standard fare, but the second paragraph is riddled with mistakes.

Let's begin.

Talent cited new science that would alter the genetic material of an embryo to prevent it from developing into a human being. A “developmentally disabled” embryo should in theory address the moral qualms of critics who view even an unfertilized egg in a petri dish as a potential person.
The second sentence is just... bad.

The author mistakenly equates two disparate issues: 1) objections against creating a “developmentally disabled” embryo (intentionally creating a crippled embryo); and 2) objections against germ-line modification. The first objection centers around scientists creating a human life, only to turn around a week later and destroy it for its "parts" (i.e., stem cells). The second with creating "designer babies".

(There's also a small issue about creating a life outside of the sanctity of marriage, but that's the weaker argument, so I will forego it.)

Then we have this ... inaccuracy.

But the reaction to Talent’s shift was blistering. Pro-life conservatives felt they’d been betrayed and threatened to abandon him at the polls, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which helped write the Senate bill, rejected Talent’s rationale that there is “an ethically untroubling way” of getting embryonic stem cells.
I believe the quote provided by the author misrepresents the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities for the USCCB, has testified before the President's Council of Bioethics on the issue. Excerpts:

If, and this is a big if, a procedure can be found to provide embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos, that would address the Catholic Church's most fundamental moral objection to embryonic stem cell research as now pursued. Clearly, such a procedure would not be prohibited by the cloning bans the Catholic bishops have supported at the state or federal level, which routinely exempt the use of nuclear transfer or any other cloning procedure to produce tissues, organs or cells other than human embryos.

I, therefore, see no moral reason at this time to oppose the further exploration of this theory in an animal model so its feasibility can better be assessed. This would give scientists an opportunity to show their real commitment is to scientific progress, not to the exploitation of embryos, and gives organizations like mine an opportunity to show that our concern is respect for life, not a fear of scientific research or scientific progress.
He continues on to discuss Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), explaining that the existing animal data is not sufficient to convince him that it does not create an embryo and, therefore, opposes its human application. Then he adds this:

Or perhaps other ways to achieve complete or partial reprogramming of a body cell nucleus without using an egg will be further refined and replace the use of eggs for this technique.
Fund it, and it will come.