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Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Boys From Brazil Revisited

A Manufactured Womb of One's Own

The commodification of children, and an admission of stem-cell hype.

The techno-womb: coming soon
The depth of the challenge presented by new biotechnologies could hardly be better illustrated than in the prospect of an artificial womb. According to The Times of London, the hopes and fears of generations of researchers are moving toward some kind of conclusion in the next couple of decades. Motives, of course, may be good: With a mechanical womb we could rescue preemies at any age at all. And, if they wished, women could "terminate" pregnancies without terminating their unborn children—the fetus could be transplanted to the techno-womb and raised to term. So, having established both medical benefits and "pro-life" benefits, is our next step to lobby Congress to speed up the process?

Japanese experiments, it seems, have brought mouse embryos almost all the way to term outside the mouse womb (though they died). Goat fetuses have been raised to term in a "uterine tank" after removal from their mother's womb. Human embryos have been persuaded to "implant" on uterine cells in vitro.

The Times also raises concerns about artificial wombs. For one thing, the techno-womb would make it much easier for scientists to engage in cloning experiments without the need for surrogate mothers. Moreover, it's hard to doubt that couples would soon be pressing to use this technology to avoid the need for the labor of child-bearing, and at the same time get rid of the ambiguities of using a surrogate mother. What kind of bonding would result? Would they view them as commodities? The Times quotes Dr. Richard Ashcroft, a reader in medical ethics at London's Imperial College: "Is creating children with artificial wombs having children at all, or is it a kind of manufacturing of children? It is deeply dangerous."

Here is the point: A technology that may have benefits sets up a new situation, in which its perils are also open to us. The world changes when something as radical as in vitro fertilization, or sex selection, or—down the line—techno-wombs, becomes available.

And we shall be tempted (a good word to use here) to slide downhill into the commodification of our children just because technology has made it possible. At least, we shall if we can't get some radical Christian thinking done about these things ahead of time.

Don't read this unless you have a strong stomach
In fact there has been a long and sorry history of using not mouse and goats but humans for this kind of research. I pulled together some of the references for an essay in my book Medicine in Crisis: a Christian Response nearly 20 years ago. Humans at various stages of gestation were immersed in tanks under pressure. Take a deep breath and listen to this (from the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, July 1, 1963): "During the first 30 minutes of immersion the temperature … was raised from 15 to 30 C, and the oxygen pressure to 250 pounds per square inch. At intervals of 11 hours the chamber was decompressed … until it was down at least to 15 pounds per square inch, before opening to see whether any animals had survived. … No fetus was living after a third period of immersion of 11 hours." They varied in age from 9 to 24 weeks. (Italics are mine: Note that when they start being killed in experiments, humans get called "animals.")

The technology presses ahead
Readers of Slate will have read Will Saletan's gripping five-part series on "The case for harvesting older human embryos," in which he reviews the science and policy debates that have begun to press far beyond the question of embryos just a few days old. He cites Dr. Helen Liu's work at Harvard, who "has grown human embryos to 10 days in artificial wombs, and the only reason she stopped at that point was to comply with the 14-day rule [which most pro-embryo-research people say should be the limit]. That was four years ago, before she grew mice nearly to term. … Now we can push the line forward, and maybe get rid of it."

And we need to remember that the law in one state, New Jersey, specifically protects the development of cloned embryos all the way to live birth. The law actually defined cloning as the birth of the cloned child. This law was passed just two years ago, and it was endorsed by the biotech industry.

The Tree of Knowledge
It hasn't yet made the headlines, but the revolution unleashed by our new knowledge of genetics has already gone further than most of us realize. Fans of the movie Gattaca will remember the futuristic society in which there is routine use of genetic tests, as strands of hair and the saliva left on an envelope or glass of water are used for DNA screenings. But the future is now, and to show how far we have gone you can buy it on Amazon.com. While our energies have been focused on embryo stem-cell research and cloning, enterprising scientists have brought one of the key features of the Brave New World into our mailboxes.

According to a report in Wired, Amazon.com is now selling a British company's $30 DNA kits, "which come with a cheek swab and a storage tin. For an extra $110, users can send for an identifying code extracted from their DNA profile and an analysis of how their genes stack up to those of the world's various races." Comments quoted range from people worried about privacy issues to one that notes you can store genetic information by keeping hair strands. However, while the genealogical data may represent marketing scam more than anything else, the principle of home-based gene tests—mail-ordered, cheap, and uncontrolled—suggests a fateful step towards the Gattaca society—where you check out your prospective girl/boyfriends, and employees, without their knowledge; and then make decisions about them that depend on how much you like their genes (eugenics).

Why are in vitro babies taller?
According to a report in the Australian newspaper The Age, in vitro babies are taller, by around four centimeters. No one yet knows why, though it could result from abnormalities in the gene expression. It seems that in vitro animals sometimes grow very big, and this could be the human counterpart of the same process. This demonstrates how technologies that take a generation to work and involve human beings are uniquely problematic. Getting the sperm to fertilize the egg in vitro seemed to be the key, but as this and other reports have shown, we have yet to fully understand the implications of what we have done to scores of thousands of children fertilized in vitro.

Stem-cell hype and arrogance: official
One of the U.K.'s most famous names is Lord Winston, the chief British in vitro doctor and a flamboyant character (I debated him on BBC radio 20 years ago). Winston is current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He is far from being a conservative on bioethics.

So his latest speech makes interesting reading. According to the BBC, he has been using strong words:

The potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research have probably been oversold to the public, fertility expert Lord Winston says. He fears a backlash if science fails to deliver on some of the "hype" around the cells—as he believes may happen. He says the notion that a host of cures for serious, degenerative disorders are just around the corner is fanciful.

He is concerned that lawmakers "have been convinced that it was just a matter of a few years before we would be able to transplant stem cells and cure a lot of neurological disorders" like Alzheimer's disease. Lord Winston says Alzheimer's "is going to be a hugely difficult problem and probably completely insoluble by stem cells."

Three cheers for Lord Winston's candor. Any other honest men and women around?

It's also interesting to note that even in the U.K., where the blitzed "stem-cell cures" hype has been closest to that in the U.S., someone has the courage to break rank and say the emperor has no clothes. Winston is concerned that failure to deliver will give credibility to pro-lifers (he says as much in his speech, even though the pro-life movement in the U.K. is a lot weaker than it is in the U.S.).

At the same time, Winston is speaking in Europe, where the genetically modified food (GMO) debate has cast a shadow over every technology. For better or for worse, European nations have generally rejected GMO foods, in a backlash that cost billions for (mainly American) companies and has illustrated the power of consumers to reject what science and business think is "good for them." Here in the U.S., critique of GMOs has been limited, and scandals (such as the mixing of GMO corn approved only for animal feed into the human food supply) have not taken off in the way they did in Europe.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron |posted 09/08/2005 09:00 a.m.
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