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Topping and Tailing
January/February 2011

Last summer, a remarkable scientific paper was published. You probably won't have heard of it. It appeared in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine. It reported what could ultimately be a cure for a previously incurable disease, beginning in infancy, characterised by excruciatingly painful skin blistering so severe as to be often fatal. The treatment was a form of stem-cell therapy. 

How could this not dominate the mainstream media? There were other stem-cell stories — the first patient treated in a clinical trial of embryonic stem cells for spinal cord injury (though the results are a year or more away), for example. Or a stroke patient in Scotland treated with stem cells derived from an aborted foetus. Again, the results must take  a year or more to appear. In neither case do the scientists and clinicians anticipate a "cure": these are just preliminary clinical safety studies. And yet, in contrast to the "stem cells defeat fatal disease of infancy" story, these were both front-page news. But they involved embryonic cells, while the infant stem-cell treatment used adult cells from bone marrow. 

Do most of the public care about the cells' origin? Unlikely — it's the results that matter. But mainstream media science correspondents, who choose which stories to feature, almost without exception bought into the prevailing orthodoxy that embryonic stem cells were exciting and potential cure-alls, while adult stem cells were not. Any nay-saying was left to assorted ideologues — pro-lifers, Catholics and other flat-earthers. Ten years on, embryonic stem cells have delivered nothing, their innate propensity to form tumours having prevented even preliminary responsible clinical testing until this year (and many proponents of embryonic stem cell research have argued vehemently that even now is too soon). There is then an air of increasing desperation therefore in these media reports. No cure is required, just testing a single patient is enough to gain blanket coverage, as science writers strain to justify their commitment to the ESC cause. 

On the ethics of embryonic and adult cells, however, the journalists are probably far more in accord with their public. The great majority takes the utilitarian, relativist view that the ends justify the means. The death of human embryos is hardly a good thing, but any "wrongness" is more than countered by the possibility of therapeutic dividend. And if the majority of scientists and the great science institutions broadcast their confidence that cures will emerge, who are the public to question them? (When has scientific orthodoxy ever been wrong?)

But pause for a moment to reconsider. Is the great majority of the scientific community and the general public truly so coldly utilitarian in outlook? It seems doubtful. We remain revolted by Nazi medical experiments on Untermenschen, absolutely regardless of potential beneficial knowledge gained. We are revolted by stories of 1950s infectious diseases experiments  performed by US scientists on prisoners or foreigners, or by the suggestion of past biohazard or radiation testing by Britain on unwitting workers. Moreover, harmful utilitarian experiments on children would provoke more outrage, not less, and with babies more still. Smaller is more vulnerable and so more deserving of protection. 

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January 7th, 2011
3:01 PM
Excellent article with which I fully agree. I would add also that in Western societies we have made absolute individual autonomy and fail to see the human person, whether the unborn infant or the frail sick and elderly, as social beings whose deaths impact on the rest of society.

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