Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Root and the Stem
You Gotta Serve Somebody

The political season is in full swing and the mud and muck fly about. Through the artifice of carefully dissected and tested phrases and freshly defined terms, politicians seek to slice and dice the voting demographic into pieces big enough to carry the day. All we are left with is a philosophical gerrymandering without core, principle, or cohesive ethos. My home state of Arizona has enough of its own—I do not normally need to look beyond the state borders to find examples of this craziness worthy of comment. But an ad put out by Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill and starring (if indeed “starring” is the correct term) Michael J. Fox certainly gives us pause for a whole slew of reasons beyond the stains left by election year rhetoric. The topic? Embryonic Stem Cell Research (
see the video).

As most everyone knows by now, Mr. Fox suffers from Parkinson’s Disease for which Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) is claimed to hold some promise. He is certainly sincere in his beliefs and he demonstrates a superior ability to deliver the message that, in Mr. Fox’s opinion, the good people of Missouri should unseat their current senator, Jim Talent (a Republican who generally opposes at least the ‘embryonic’ part of ESCR) and put Claire McCaskill in his place (as ostensibly she supports it).

By now I should think that a great majority of the voting public has some sort of an opinion about ESCR. The quality and make-up of those opinions is a different matter. This is not the fault of the electorate. Much has been done by the various interest groups to distinguish and/or blur the lines (rather, blur the genes) between the different types and methods of harvesting and researching stem cells. And, depending on who you speak to, the potential of the medical research is either enormous or hardly worth the effort. I think that each of us now probably has one ‘bucket’ of thought in their heads labeled “Stem Cells, Misc.” into which all related tid-bits are tossed regardless their nuance. The contents of this bucket are blended into a semi-homogenous pool of thought that tastes like an opinion, but lacks the substance to fully satisfy intellectually or otherwise.

On the “pro-ESCR” side we are asked to consider the promise of therapeutic benefits for those of us who suffer greatly—lives saved, horrible symptoms diminished, diseases cured, organs regenerated. We are given the complimentary assurances that embryos are not yet life and that they will, in most cases, be discarded anyway as the by-products of in vitro fertilization, etc. To deny such things, we are told, is to deny science itself. This is the “all flesh is the malleable mechanics of life” argument. Certainly this position is a little solipsistic—marginally cannibalistic—but it is still a tenable argument in a cold, Darwinian sense.

On the “anti-ESCR” side we are told that we will be creating an economic “market” for the better embryos. After all, if there is a market, there will be those who are discerning as to quality. One can therefore imagine special and/or custom orders—perhaps the equivalent of a designer label version for the well-healed sufferer. We hear that the benefits of ESCR are questionable at best and that, in any case, we can use stem cells from other, non-embryonic sources with little or no detriment to the quality of research. This is the “all life is sacred and begins at conception” argument. This position suffers from the strong perfume of religiosity that surrounds it (the closest thing we have to a sin of public discourse these days) and the seeming unwillingness or inability of most proponents to take a stab at a more intellectual defense.

So the general confusion persists. The only things that we can say with any relative certainty are that we want to cure vial diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but we don’t really want to kill any anonymous third party in the process. It gets muddier still. Clear philosophical thought is always—I repeat, always—hampered by money and emotion. There is most definitely money to be made in all this. I can speak first-hand that there is no amount of money or effort that a loving family would not spend in order to restore Grandma’s or Grandpa’s ability to count through the names of their progeny one more time with knowing and recognition. This is a higher level of opacity—our emotions. Our love and humanity are themselves Sirens that obscure our view and call us to sacrifice a few thin layers of principle to ease the emotional and physical pains. The pharmaceutical giants know this and the promise of lucrative cures is a Siren that they are not practiced in resisting. Thus we step forward into the brand new world in a tentative alliance of inharmonious, yet parallel objectives.

It’s a shame, really. Because there is something deeper here that needs our attention. It is far too easy to get ourselves caught up in resolving what amount to our deepest of philosophical ponderings by staking our claims solely in the realms of temporal specificity. By this I mean that we can spend so much time arguing about those damnable nuances and specifics that we lose sight of the whole. There is a whole here, after all. And it is a whole that lies at the root of many of our evils, some of our sanctities, and many of our most controversial topics.

What are we willing to do—and not do—in the service of ourselves?

Who Do You Serve?
Bob Dylan famously wrote and performed a song called You Gotta Serve Somebody that distilled this question down nicely. We, individually and collectively, must decide if our comfort, convenience, and even our individual survival is, in itself, the ultimate good.

Veal may serve (so to speak) to make a point. Unless you have kept yourself in a state of abject denial you are aware that veal is the meat of young cows. The tradition of “slaying the fatted calf” is biblical and stretches back literally thousands of years. This is, obviously, because young cows plumped by a steady diet of grain generally provide more tender and better tasting meat than their older, range-fed counterparts. But the Israelites also abided by a strict set of laws that not only dictated what and how they ate, but also stipulated how the animals were to be treated in life and the manner in which they were to be slaughtered in death—namely, they were instructed in the manners providing the least amount of distress and discomfort as possible to the animal.

Reflect this forward to the present day. Some veal ranchers discovered that young cows kept largely immobile in small pens produced an even better end product. However this treatment is indisputably unpleasant for the animal. Society is rebelling against such treatment. Many people have thus determined that there is a portion of their desires that is transcended by the moral. An animal—though good for food (unless you are a Vegan)—should not be treated in a manner that causes unnecessary suffering even if there is a personal benefit to the consumer.

To a varying amount, we as a society agree. We have determined that, in the case of veal and animals in general, complete and totalitarian service to self is wrong….Here, here.

Amongst humanity, we hail our highest heroes as those who have offered up life and limb in their service to others. Police, Firemen, Soldiers, other professions, and even the common everyday citizen daily provide us with fresh examples of self-sacrifice. Hostages are rescued, total strangers are pulled from burning buildings, and soldiers charge into terrorist enclaves—all at great personal risk and often real loss for them and their clan. We honor those who fail and those who succeed—those who escape unharmed as well as those who pay the price—because we recognize that it is indeed the highest order and calling of man that he lay down his life for his brother (scriptural references become unavoidable in discussions of morals and ethics). This holds true even if the “brother” in question is a total stranger. And honor them we should.

If we focus on the specific meal or on a particular animal (in the case of veal) or if we try to appraise the value of a particular human life against the heat of a particular fire (in the case of a fireman) we will befuddle ourselves with so many specifics that we will become paralyzed well beyond the window of decision. So the decisions are no longer decisions. Our greatest heroes are the ones who hear an anonymous cry for help and leap into the flame with a diminished self regard.

So now we have real-world examples of the exaltation of moral values when we do (the fireman) and do not (veal). A bit simplistic? Yes—especially considering the complexities of ESCR. But then there is much emotion and money in our path.

Perhaps Sometime soon…
As we come back around to the topic at hand, we once again confront this philosophical demon in the blinding glare and white walls of an operating room, perhaps not far into the future. In this starkly white and sanitary environment, a neurosurgeon is preparing to implant stem cells into the correct portion of a patient’s brain in the hope that these cells will learn or decide to buttress the patient’s ailing hypothalamus to produce more dopamine, thus easing those terrible tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease. The procedure sometimes works, often fails and must be attempted again, and occasionally results in a blossoming tumor that carries its own crisis and additional surgery. As the patient is being efficiently prepared for the procedure, he is asked to sign several pieces of paper from a full clip board containing all the usual insurance forms, medical disclaimers, and legal releases incumbent with 21st Century medicine. Maybe that patient will be Michael J. Fox himself as he has becomes further dissatisfied with the level of relief afforded him by medications alone.

Whoever that patient is, I wonder if he will think back upon the day he placed the order for his stem cells a few months back and try to picture the young coed who regularly contributes to the tissue bank in order to fund her classes. Perhaps he will be grateful for the tissue-match and the coed’s history of successful stem cell extraction. Maybe our patient will think the whole affair to be a noble capitalistic exchange—one being relieved of the symptoms of a terrible disease, the other financing her college tuition with less debt and trouble.

Or perhaps the patient will wonder if the capitalistic exchange contained much nobility at all and cringe at the market for human flesh. He may remember that several cloned embryos were created—most failed—and a few have been kept as spares pending the success of the procedure. If the procedure is successful, the remaining will be destroyed and the doctors and egg donors will move on to the next case. Perhaps the patient will marvel at the miracle of modern science within the context of the miracle of life itself to realize his personal lot with a different perspective. In so doing, he may well know that medical science had found a cure for his ill, but in this new light he may wonder if it should have found another way as he sets the loaded clipboard aside, runs his fingers across the rosary left by his mother at the bedside, and remembers the heartache his sister felt as she miscarried her first child—his own niece or nephew—at the time only a few short weeks older than the cells he is about to receive.

The First of Many
This is neither the first or last time we will bump up against our medical ethics and self interests to see that they are not aligned. Time and again the specific cases and anecdotal evidence clouds our decision making and the loudest, richest, or most photogenic interest carries sway. I am pressed to find evidence that we, as a society, even agree that there are some things—anything—that we should not do to prolong or improve our own individual lives. Left unresolved, we will continue to be cursed with a series social constructs that form a socio-philosophical tradition with a schizophrenic bent—possessing multiple, often disconnected and opposing ethics. A tradition so formed is quickly recognized by new generations as holding no traditions at all. What remains for them is to recognize only the self and selfish as they make their own choices.

Is the potential of medical research such as ESCR enormous? Well, it may be Pyrrhic in that what we gain may be equaled or outweighed by what we lose—even if we are too busy staring into our mirrors to understand the loss. We can say with certainly that politicians like Clair McCaskill will cynically continue to ensure that we do not.

- Huckleberry
Read the Lyrics to: You Gotta Serve Somebody By Bob Dylan, circa 1979

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