Generation Kill

Kyle M. Loh May 27, 2010 0

Who decides who it's "right" to kill someone? Today, is it the scientist, not the racist? Are we using science to invent new reasons why we should kill new groups of people? We did it before – we may be doing it again.

Today, while at the National University of Singapore for a health checkup, I had a very interesting meeting with a medical doctor, who ironically was named "Dr. Loh". A 5-minute standard physical exam turned into an over 30-minute Q&A session. It was probably the question "What do you think of embryos?" that tipped me off that I was in for more than the rest of students outside also getting their health examination.

Scientists profess to abide by an ethical code of conduct when we conduct our research. In fact, for certain fields of morally-ambiguous research, there are extensive dedicated agencies and boards established to provide oversight over these research procedures – such as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversights (ESCROs). Why must scientists follow ethics? If scientists and doctors will make cures to save millions of lives, can a few ethical rules for a handful of animals or patients be bent to accelerate the generation of these cures? Of course, the argument is that scientists are inherently human, and thus inherent to us is that we must fundamentally respect the human rights of other humans and that we abide by the same ethical regulations that all other humans do – our status grants us no special exception.

And of course, the image we all have sticking in our minds is that of the misguided and deranged scientist, unshackled by ethics and engineering some malevolent disaster for humanity.

But to be serious, once engaged on this line of inquiry, we find ourselves on a slippery slope, our position far more vulnerable than we once thought.

Say you are a researcher working on plants (Arabidopsis). Would you hesitate to sacrifice a plant for your experiment? Obviously not. What if you are working on worms (C. elegans)? I wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice a worm. What if you're working on flies (Drosophila)? Same answer. See where this is going? What if you work on mice (M. musculus), monkeys, or even … humans? Getting dangerous. Who do you sacrifice? Who do you save?

Slope gets even more slippery when you begin to try to consider different "grades" of human. Who would you rather sacrifice? A human adult or a human baby? Who is "worth" more? Several hundred years ago, the enlightened scholars of Europe and the nascent U.S. thought that Native Americans were actually non-human on a scientific basis, and thus, this qualified their genocide. Similarly, ashamedly, we once thought that blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites on a biological level. Back then, we would have had scientific "proof" that we would rather save an intelligent white over an incomparable black. 

Dr. Loh posed a very interesting question to me yesterday – are we re-using this similarly flawed logic today … except today, scarily, we have the most educated scientists – leaders of their fields – giving rigorous scientific "evidence" to support this same kind of fascist logic?

I thought myself as a "well-rounded" and holistic stem cell researcher in that I was sure of the ethics of embryonic stem cell research and understood the rigorous circumlocutions of it – though I write that I have not been directly involved with human embryonic stem cell research thus far. Yet, the question became very disturbing very soon for me.

As you may know, human embryonic stem cells are derived by terminating human embryos. We are currently several trillion cells, yet we all started out as a single cell – the fertilized zygote, the biological marriage of sperm and egg. This cell doubled over and over again to create all the cells we have today.

How many cells does it take to call someone "human"? Where along that continuum from 1 to 1015 cells do we stop becoming just "cells" and become "human"? What number of cells does it take to give rise to that quintessential and undefinable quality of being human? Do we wait until someone has a face and guilty eyes before we feel bad for killing that human? Or do we hold it that when that one cell is made – the progenitor to a human life – that the life has already been formed and killing that single cell is as morally unconsciable as killing someone with trillions of cells?

Human embryonic stem cells are derived when the embryo is terminated at the 128-cell stage (blastocyst; the stem cells come from the inner cell mass, otherwise known as the naive epiblast sometimes). Stem cells can also be taken from the 8-cell stage (blastomere). Who is to say that a human being is "less human" at the 8 cell stage than he is at the 128 cell stage? Or what about the 64 cell stage, say? Is it more right to kill someone with 64 cells or 128 cells?

Or are we simply falling back into the same flawed logic that we were entrapped in a hundred years ago? Is it now that we no longer judge people by the color of their skin but we judge them by the number of cells that they have? And when they no longer fit our criteria for being "human" – like the Native Americans – that we shall exterminate them too?

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