Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Small Life

For 2 years of a MS I nurtured millions of helpless human lives; they were kidney cells. Each day I’d feed them, shelter them in an incubator, and defend them from invading microbes. Each week I’d take a census of their population, make the necessary dilution, and kill the excess. It was repetitive grunt work.

A couple weeks into it, I wondered about the cell line’s origins, and my PI told me they were taken from a woman, many years before. They were in fact the part of her that killed her, after they mutated to gain the ability on which we were now capitalizing, unlimited proliferation. In short, the woman was long dead. While the majority of her body, no doubt, had rotted to dust and bones, each day I’d been keeping part of it alive. In fact, researchers in many labs in many countries were using these cells. In a way, she lived on, and did so worldwide, and possibly had more living mass than any human, ever.

For me, that realization was one of those spiritual moments the work of Science can sometimes offer. Taking care of those cells did take on a more solemnity, in the thought of those who loved her, and the life cut short.

The “Culture of Life” debates always make me think of this woman, who’s partial body is, to this day, alive under the care of tired grad students.

But she isn’t really living. The person she was, the person who had thoughts, emotions, rights and so on, is gone, right? Wouldn’t everyone agree on that? The executor of that woman’s will isn’t patiently waiting to perform his duties. No Fundamentalist politician is out to prosecute grad students for killing all that human life. But those cells are, by near all definitions, human life, each of them with human genes, some genetically unique, however slightly, and, not too far in our technological future, they could conceivably be made into viable human babies.

This all of course relates to a couple hot button topics. Regarding abortion, I can’t say I’m pro-choice. I can’t say I’m pro life either (or anti-choice or anti-life; gotta love political vocabulary ;-)). I, generally, don’t please any activist on this topic and should have probably stayed away from it. Simply, early on in a pregnancy, I’ve few reservations with someone ending that life. Later on, once a nervous system has developed and those human algorithms of thought start in motion, especially when the fetus may also survive outside the womb, well, I’m not near comfortable with late term abortions. Where to draw the line? I’ve not planted my feet and am willing to be swayed to a great degree in that middle ground for a good argument, but, in the extremes of those nine months, I do have firmer views.

Nevertheless, this topic was brought to mind for the embryonic stem cell research debate going on. A bill was just passed in the Senate loosening federal restrictions on funding such research, and it will be going to the desk of the president, for inevitable veto. Personally I see this as unfortunate, the veto that is (and both of Utah’s senators agree with me, a rare thing). I worry in a push to supposedly give dignity to human life by giving rights to an unthinking, unfeeling, emotionless, and tiny volume of cells, that the value of a person -- the life with intelligence, and feelings -- is actually ignored. The risk of mistaken of priorities is made even more pressing when we are talking about the chance of rescue of thinking human lives from death, through such research.

I plainly don’t respect another’s rights and right to life because they have human life, anymore than I’d respect the human life of my tonsils, should they get in my way. I rightly didn’t respect the human life of that long dead woman I routinely dumped into the waste as a MS student. I do respect another’s rights and right to life because they have some measure of intelligence, self-awareness, feelings, and so on. If such characteristics came in the form of my desktop computer, I’d never turn it off. If they came in the form of an insect-like life from another planet, I’d expect my insectoid brothers and sisters to have all the rights I enjoy. Does anyone on either side of this debate really feel much differently?

I don’t know. I can see it’s a complicated topic, particularly when various faiths are mixed in. I hope science soon finds a way to bypass embryonic stem cells for the adult variety altogether, saving the emotional trauma for those who believe a life deserving of defense begins at the moment of conception (whenever that moment is pinpointed). But, for now, such research is a significant potential for some very sick individuals.

Not that my blog will change minds on this, of course, but the news triggered the concern, and a thought for that woman. Funny, she'll probably out'live' my body by a great number of years.


Elbow said...

great post, dude. thanks for being so cool.

Anonymous said...

i love science, i don't want it to be a religion because then it wouldn't be science any more, but appreciation of science breeds tolerance and compassion as well as any religion

Scot said...

Thank you Elbow, and I must say I agree, santorio.