Column: Blastocyst stew

By Sam Harding-Forrester

Embryonic stem cells have once again emerged from the depths of the uterus to take center stage in public debate. As reported in a study published on Oct. 15, researchers at the University of Minnesota successfully used these cells to grow cancer-fighting immune system cells. Along with this new possibility of treating cancer, embryonic stem cells have been tapped as ammunition in the fight against Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and so on.

The unique value of these cells for many conditions that are currently incurable is that they have not yet differentiated into the specific cell types of the human body. Therefore, they could theoretically be developed under controlled conditions to produce immune cells, neurons, or any other type of tissue. Any medical benefits of embryonic stem cell research, of course, remain a distant possibility, and adult or animal stem cells – while unable to differentiate so freely – will also be medically valuable, and for certain applications may prove superior. Yet the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the greatest promise lies with the embryonic stem cells.

Unfortunately, this research is still constrained by President Bush’s strict restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, which reflect an ongoing debate over stem cell ethics inspired by the proposition that human life begins with a fertilized egg. Embryonic stem cells are typically harvested from an embryo at the 5-day mark, when it is called a blastocyst. Opponents of embryonic cell research essentially object to a perceived infringement on the blastocyst’s human rights. Of course, fertility clinics have long discarded leftover blastocysts in massive numbers to little fanfare. But the distinction, blastocyst advocates insist, is that in deliberately deploying blastocysts for research we “instrumentalize” and thus “disrespect” them. One must wonder whether the gravely ill tend to indulge so freely with such purely symbolic moralizing.

Given what is at stake here, it is worth examining the nature of these blastocysts on behalf of whom the stem cell brouhaha has been manufactured. The fertilization of an egg produces a single-celled zygote. Displaying a death wish rivaled only by the lemming, more than 50 percent of zygotes spontaneously throw in the towel without bothering to relieve a woman of a single period, opting instead to be unceremoniously flushed out with the menses. But by the end of its 5-day migration towards the uterus – unless it proves to be one of these incompetent ne’er-do-wells – a zygote will develop through repeated divisions into a ball of cells constituting a full-fledged blastocyst. Once it reaches the uterus, the blastocyst proceeds to loll about in an idle fashion for a few more days, before finally hitting upon the bright idea of implanting itself in the uterine wall.

Now we can safely assume the blastocyst does not have much going on upstairs. Indeed, in its undifferentiated state, it displays nothing one might plausibly designate as “upstairs.” The blastocyst is merely a clump of unconscious cellular matter, necessary but not independently sufficient for the ultimate emergence of human life.

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    Blastocyst advocates are thus reduced to the radically inane strategy of deriving the blastocyst’s sanctity from its status as a “potential” human life. Yet it is not our moral responsibility to ensure that every clump of matter with a chance of morphing into a sentient humanoid accomplishes this feat. One does not, after all, find the blastocyst-huggers out to bat for the “pre-life” movement, chasing down chaste heterosexuals and admonishing them to make prompt whoopee for the sake of the potential life waiting to sally forth from their dormant loins.

    Unperturbed by this paucity of substantive arguments, opponents of embryonic stem cell research continue to venerate the lowly blastocyst. But it is high time this ill-informed mythology was abandoned. Several friends of mine have long harbored plans to establish Blastocyst Destruction Day, incorporating a range of festivities during which surplus blastocysts might be dispatched en masse by the most spectacular means available. Life is a precious and beautiful thing, and we could use the occasional reminder that alleviating the devastations of human illness is a goal meriting the sacrifice of a few clumps of cellular excrescence.

    Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected].