Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Olivia Judson Takes a Position!

That was the lede (or part of it anyway) at the NYT website today for an essay by biologist and science writer Olivia Judson. Since it will disappear soon, here's the whole lede for reference purposes:
Olivia Judson takes a position on a proposal in Britain that would permit the merging of the DNA of two different species.
This lede is linked to her essay, called Enter, the Cybrids.

The essay is a relatively harmless account of the very harmful legislation that has been percolating in Britain of late. In particular, we're talking about legislation that will, among other things, move the terminus post quem for legal abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, allow the creation of "savior siblings" (children created in vitro for the purposes of tissue harvesting), and permit experimental work involving the creation of "cybrids" for medical research. A "cybrid" is a human-animal hybrid created by replacing the DNA in the egg cell of some non-human animal with real live human DNA (interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer, a kind of cloning). The legislation is "harmful" for two distinct but related reasons. First, it makes abortion more readily available by allowing abortions to be carried out earlier. Empirical evidence shows that the willingness to procure an abortion is inversely proportional to the length of gestation. Second, it allows the use of human subjects in medical experimentation without the granting of consent by the subjects of the experimentation. Since the "subjects" in this case are just "clumps of cells" (as the proponents of such experiments like to call them, just as the Nazis called Jews a "viral infection of the German Volk"), they cannot give consent, so presumably their parents, or some suitable surrogate (perhaps a Big Brother), will give the consent for them, and all will be hunky dory in scienceland, where anything and everything is permitted in the name of progress.

In addressing her concerns about the possible moral worries raised by this sort of research, Judson write:
I think a tiny clump of cells in a dish does not have equal standing with a person. Moreover, if that tiny clump of cells can potentially lead to treatments that improve peoples’ lives, it seems to me that the sanctity of human life is better respected by following that potential, not preventing it.
Well, if Olivia Judson says that "a tiny clump of cells in a dish does not have equal standing with a person", I guess that settles things. No need to offer anything like an argument that would give the rest of us some sort of compelling reason to think that she is right. No need to offer anything like an account of what a "person" is and what the precise line of demarcation is between a "person" and "a tiny clump of cells in a dish". In short, Olivia Judson has adopted an ontology of her own, and thanks to that convenient ontology, any possible moral qualms about this research simply vanish! What could be more congenial?

I'll tell you what: adopting, in addition to said ontology, a moral framework that goes along with it: utilitarianism. Even if that "clump of cells" had any kind of moral standing, "if that tiny clump of cells can potentially lead to treatments that improve peoples’ lives, it seems to me that the sanctity of human life is better respected by following that potential, not preventing it." In short, if the payoff is great enough, you can do pretty much whatever you like.

One has to respect her reason for maintaining this position: "it seems to me." What could be more persuasive than that? It seems true to Olivia Judson. Wow, that's a real deal closer. It might "seem" differently to her if someone decided that their own interests were best served by harvesting her organs prior to her own natural demise, but she probably thinks of herself as a "person" and protected against that kind of thing by her "rights". The philosophical chutzpah is palpable.

In her peroration, Judson pulls out what, for her, would appear to be all the rhetorical stops:
When, a couple of years ago, I first imagined putting a nucleus from one animal into the egg of another, I found the idea unsettling. But that was because I was imagining something different: I had in mind the growing of animals, not the creation and swift destruction of a clump of cells. I worried that animals produced this way might not be normal. But then I learned more about the procedure and how it is done. Also, in the course of making a television program about biotechnology, I visited laboratories working with stem cells, and I was impressed by what we have already managed to achieve.

Now my discomfort has gone away. It’s been replaced by wonder. We’ve already learned a great deal about the ultimate construction of life as a result of the experiments done so far. But more than that, the fact that it’s possible at all to put one creature’s DNA into another creature’s cell and have the two work together at all is amazing — and another sign of the common evolutionary heritage of ourselves and the other beings on the planet.
The strategy here is to try to set the minds of her simplistic readers at ease. I am a scientist, and believe me, I was worried too, just like all you little people--but now I'm not worried anymore! Don't you see? It's all really quite beautiful once you open your minds and use your imagination (try not to think about Spongebob Squarepants as you read that bit).

If only the rest of us could make television programs, I'm sure all of our discomfort would go away, too. No need to engage in any argumentation, offer any reasons, or think more deeply about the moral foundations of our views. All we really need to do is carefully craft a world view in which the conclusion that we want to get falls naturally out of our self-serving presuppositions and ontological attitudes.

Come on, everybody! Just take a position! Don't bother to argue for it! Just assert it, and all of your worries will go away!


John Farrell said...

Disappointing, as I generally like her science posts for the NY Times blog.

JackieD said...

Any kind of human cloning is scary, but the cybrid idea sounds promising for the purposes of saving animal DNA, much as we have the plant seedbank in . . . Sweden?