29 January 2012

In which I have a fight with an Australian lady on the radio

Well, today was certainly an interesting one. Hot on the heels of the recent report in the Lancet about how cells derived from embryonic stem cells have safely integrated into the maculae of patients with macular degeneration, I was on BBC Radio Ulster defending the ethics. Quick summary - these cells were injected into the eyes of patients with degenerative disorders of the retina; the cells have integrated, and are apparently functioning well. This is exciting and promising research, for people with visual disorders, and many other degenerative conditions.

I think Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) is a highly ethical avenue of research, but my opponent thinks otherwise. She is Josephine Quintavalle from a lobby group called "Comment on Reproductive Ethics" (CoRE); they take a fairly hard-line embryo-is-a-full-human-person tack, pretty much in accordance with the official position of the Roman Catholic Church (which I find wholly ridiculous, but I may post on that some other time).We had a very polite discussion, expertly chaired by the indomitable William Crawley, but I'll leave the listener to decide whether I did a good job or not.

In retrospect, I wonder if I should have been a little more aggressive. The arguments against ESCR are pretty weak, and are based around a fundamental misunderstanding (or downgrading) of what it means to be a human person.

Anyway, have a listen - our bit starts at about 33 minutes: http://t.co/V0Rr94dP

Please leave any comments below - I would love to hear 'em.


  1. You certainly did a good job of covering the key points in the end, but you may have benefited by getting her onto the back foot early on - I'm no expert, mind! It needn't be an aggressive tactic as such, but you'd might as well make them respond to you, as you can at least dictate the terms of the discussion to some extent, rather than having to defend your view from the disadvantaged position of having to hack your way through their skewed interpretation of the subject.
    Mentioning at the start that these embryos lack the neural structures to form thoughts or feel pain would force her to justify her position of saying the early embryos are the same thing as a human being. Perhaps asking such people why they draw the line between sperm/ova and embryos would expose just how arbitrary their position is.
    You did a great job of managing to remain polite!

    1. Thanks - I did get a slight feeling that I should have opened up with the big guns earlier on, with specific examples that would have rendered her Hungarian comment even more irrelevant than it was already.

  2. Odd how those who care so much for a zygote care so little for an actual child.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi Mark,
      Sorry for the delay in dealing with this; and now you've gone and deleted it! Anyway, the skinny is this: if you don't have a functioning central nervous system, you cannot have a consciousness, and therefore you are not a "person" in any meaningful sense whatsoever. Quintavalle's position is completely illogical.

    2. Thanks, Shane.

      Are all those who don't have a functioning central nervous system (thinking those with paralysis, for example) not "people" in a meaningful sense?

      I'll assume your functional specification isn't complete or you gave me the unscientific version (or that you'll adjust your words or say that I'm being illogical).

  4. People with paralysis do have a functioning central nervous system. They have thoughts, wishes, feelings etc. You will note that I did not specify that it had to be "perfect". Embryos do not have the capacity for any form of self awareness, and are (from a personhood point of view) no more special than the cells in your saliva. They really are just bunches of cells that have not even attained the level of organisation of a tadpole. To extend the full range of human rights to human embryos, and leave out tadpoles, cow embryos or even chimp embryos is simply bizarre and degrading. Nor is there any scientific, moral or logical reason to do so.

    1. Definitely read up on some embryology - it's unrelentingly fascinating. The processes of origami, growth, apoptosis, differentiation etc that allow an organism to develop from an undifferentiated blob of cells.

      In years gone by people believed that the semen was the "seed", and that there was effectively a wee homunculus in this seed that grew into, well, a bigger homunculus. When they invented microscopes and could actually *see* sperm, some people imagined (like Lovell's Martian canals) that they could see these little homunculi curled up in the head of the sperm.

      All cobblers, of course - the reality is much more interesting. A person - a human being - is not something that gets "conceived", but something that develops from the embryonic primordia. You simply don't *have* a human being at the embryo level, but something that is developing towards that.

      This is what people like Quintavalle cannot bring themselves to accept. For one thing, it removes their power over other people's decisions. But in reality I think it is simply a matter of them not being able to get their heads around the fact that we are biological organisms, formed in the chamber of the womb from the fascinating interplay of cells and feto-maternal environment, and not crafted in some heavenly factory and beamed into receptive uteri en bloc.

      Happy reading! :-)

    2. A secondary point.

      Thinking about inheritance in object-oriented programming and geometry here. Do you see "the embryo" as a quadrilateral and your human, cow and chimp embryos as squares, rectangles and parallelograms? In which case, would an argument against the quadrilateral be "inherited" for all other polygons with four sides (or edges) and four vertices or corners? I wondered whether the "debate" is actually about squares, rectangles and parallelograms rather than the quadrilateral which you seem to be rejecting as not scientific, moral or logical.

      Just a thought.

    3. Thanks for the comments, will have a read when I get some free time to!

    4. Hi Mark,
      Actually, you are raising a very very good point (thanks!) - this is exactly what, in my view, lies at the crux of the "Quintavalle error". OOP in computing is a really powerful technique, and allows you to do all sorts of great stuff, but inheritance in biological systems (including humans) does not follow the same principles. An "OOP embryo" would be an entity containing a wide range of potential attributes, and as time goes on, you clarify/reduce those to end up with something a lot more specific.

      However, in biology the embryo is a system that is a precursor. It's not an object that gradually crystallises its attributes, but a work in progress that changes its behaviour and phenotype as the deterministic molecular processes unfold. In very real terms, it "evolves" into a human - the "person" that we recognise is emergent from the system. Hard to put into words, I'll admit :-)

      Think of it this way - it's like a house. You've cleared the site, and the suppliers have dumped a load of bricks and mortar and timbers etc. You can't say that this is a house yet, since there are processes that have to be gone through first to actually build the house, even if the blueprints and some of the raw materials are there, or even if the founds have been dug.

      Over time, if you keep your team on the job, a house will emerge, but you're not starting with a generic house that you modify/adapt as you go along.

      Does that clarify? (possibly not! :-)

    5. Hi Shane,

      "Does that clarify? (possibly not! :-)"

      Yes, I think so!

      "Hard to put into words, I'll admit :-)"

      Appreciate that! If it's a work in progress (and I'll link this to the house in a minute) that changes as molecular processes unfold then is there "logic" (pardon the abuse of terminology) that dictates that what will "evolve" (using your terminology) will be a human? I'm thinking, way outside the box here, why wouldn't the (human) embryo produce a frog, a cow or a chimp? I admit, that'd make for a strange birth scenario(!) but I'm trying to piece together the pieces of information you've provided. If we use your house simile...

      My first thought was that, although the raw materials etc. are all laid out, we "know" (and I use that term sparingly) that a house is the intended "goal" (for want of a better word). We wouldn't come back (after nine months, say) and find a fire engine or a hospital or a plane. Are you saying that people are missing the point if they say "but this was going to be a house and you took all the bricks so it couldn't be built!" rather than something like the "house" was never actually there in the first place it was just something that existed conceptually (or at best, sparingly)?

    6. Well, it doesn't "know" what it's going to develop into - it simply follows the instructions (this is simplified - bear with me :-) in the DNA. At the end of the process we look at the result, and we see that it's a human or a cow or frog or whatever. There is no "essence of humanity" in there - the information in the DNA is effectively the recipe, and you see what you've got when you take the bun out of the oven. The recipe for a chimp is extremely similar to that for a human (obviously, since they're related), a cow less so, and a frog less so again. But the processes are effectively the same.

      So yes - the "houseness" does not exist in the concept or instructions, but entirely derives from the fact that the process of building the house has been undertaken. (Maybe that doesn't clarify?)

    7. Interesting.

      What seems to be happening is you're inside the black box and I'm outside of the black box noticing that it is indeed a black box. (I wouldn't argue with your technical descriptions, I know they're watered down but that's OK.) For example, you start off with:

      "Well, it doesn't 'know' what ..."

      I actually used the word "we" and not "it" to step outside of this raw material, blueprints, "builders", etc. assemblage (appreciate it's a tricky one to wrap a head around but think I'm with you on it) to highlight that whatever magic (for want of a better word) it takes we would always see a human "finished product" at the end (in a human, of course). I appreciate that the process of building could well be generic.

      Another example would be if you took a sausage machine you'd "expect" a sausage to come out of the other end despite of what the processes are that "produce" it.

      Are you saying that the only point at which it is a sausage is when it pops out of the other end as a sausage? Trying to avoid a "degrees of sausageness" discussion... although maybe that's really what it's about.

  5. Hi Mark,
    The problem is that when we unpack the black box (and it doesn't really matter what vantage point we take - we can resolve this at any level we want) we see that there aren't really degrees of sausageness - just a point at which you treat the product as a sausage (or at which it treats itself as a sausage, which is relevant too).