What’s Wrong with the World

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WJS on ethics, law, and ESCR in Europe

Evidently there's a European law that a patent cannot be obtained on a product that requires the destruction of human embryos to produce. This is big stuff, because patenting ESCR lines is important to making money out of ESCR. A judge applied the apparently straightforward law in a straightforward case ruling that ESCR lines are not patentable, and predictably, the left is going ballistic.

Wesley J. Smith has a post that is just beautifully logical. Smith takes apart one rant on the subject by an ESCR advocate who uses the usual ad misericordium ("They're blocking my cure") along with junk science ("All the cells in your body are potential embryos") while completely ignoring the straightforward legal issue.

As Smith points out, the judge was applying the clear law to a clear case. The judge needn't be ethically opposed himself to ESCR to make the scientific and legal points that he made. Exactly. And I'm glad Smith doesn't feel squeamish about saying, sensibly and logically, that it's quite possible for a judge to do this, that judging isn't just all about applying one's own ethical beliefs to cases. In many cases judges aren't supposed to act as the "wise men of the village," deciding what we all must do. Sometimes they really can just make decisions based on external facts and written law, as in this case.

My favorite quotation in Smith's post is about the junk science:

The sophistry about every cell being capable of becoming an embryo is the old junk biology gambit that has to do with SCNT human cloning, in which a nucleus from a cell is used–with an enucleated egg–to create an embryo asexually. That doesn’t mean each of our cells is a potential embryo. If one wants to use the analogy, it means that each of our cells is a potential sperm.

I wish I'd thought of that myself in some discussions years ago with a friend who had been influenced by the "cells you brush off when you take a shower" nonsense: "If one wants to use the analogy, it means that each of our cells is a potential sperm."

Comments (7)

"Each of our cells is a potential sperm" is a great line. Unfortunately, it's not a whole lot more accurate than "each of our cells is a potential embryo". A sperm has only half a human genetic complement; an adult cell has the whole thing. (So maybe a potential *pair* of sperm.)

Which certainly isn't to say that the "potential embryo" idea is any better, of course. If each of our cells were really a potential embryo (in a useful philosophical sense), cloning wouldn't be so all-fired difficult, and the whole push for ESCR would be moot.


Good point about the extra DNA. The role of the skin cell in SCNT is really biologically sui generis. It doesn't biologically conform to the role of either gamete alone, though I understand why Smith likens it to a sperm cell. I actually think it is particularly ridiculous to speak of it as a "potential embryo." The egg's role is crucial. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which one's individual skin cell would literally "turn into" an embryo. For that matter, even IPSC reprogramming can't do that. The skin cell is nothing like an embryo. To think that it is is DNA reductionism on steroids, DNA reductionism beyond even what our scientific establishment is normally inclined unto.

The myopic notion that "each of our cells is a potential sperm," or to be more accurate a potential human being (because that's where they're going with this), isn't strictly false, so much as a denial of all values: break down human life far enough, figuratively speaking, and you'll wind up with soulless molecules bumping into each other. Now that you've destroyed all value with reductionism, you can justify pretty much anything you like.

Smith used "potential sperm" as an _alternative_ to "potential human being." The idea was to point out by a clever line that it's completely false that each cell could somehow "turn into" a human being. Smith's idea was to say that if we insist on talking about cloning (SCNT) it would make _more_ sense to liken the skin cell to a sperm cell in that context, because in SCNT it is united with an (enucleated) egg to produce an embryo.

Peter Brown is right that a gamete has only half of the requisite DNA, so even there the analogy is flawed. I would simply say that it's still a great line if only in that it draws, correctly, a sharp distinction between our individual ordinary cells (in their complete insufficiency to "turn into" anything interesting by themselves) and a human embryo.

Oh, I see. Smith said it, not his friend.

I hear it from pro-choice people: if you think an embryo is human, then so are skin cells, etc. Pretend my comment was directed at them.

But stem cells are not embryos. They have the potential to become them, but then so does almost every cell in your body – including the thousands that you slough off every time you scratch your scalp or pick your nose.
  1. The skin has several layers which are comprised of different types of cells (i.e. hypodermis, dermis, and epidermis). The outermost layer is the epidermis.

    The epidermis itself has several layers. From the deepest layer to the most superficial layer: stratum basale; stratum spinosum; stratum granulosum; stratum lucidum; and stratum corneum.

    The cells which comprise stratum corneum are the cells which are "slough[ed] off." This occurs roughly every three to four weeks in most individuals. These cells are dead keratinocytes. They don't possess nuclei and therefore do not possess DNA. Since dead keratinocytes don't possess nuclei or DNA, "the thousands that you slough off every time you scratch your scalp or pick your nose" would not be able to have their nuclei placed into an enucleated ovum or egg let alone become embryos.

  2. Also, our erythrocytes or red blood cells do not have nuclei and therefore no DNA either.
  3. I'd second Peter Brown's point about sperm and DNA. (Obviously an egg or specifically ovum would be in the same situation as sperm with regard to its DNA.)

I should add mitochondria have separate DNA (which, among other things, helps in tracing maternal lineage in genealogical DNA tests, and on which the idea of "Mitochondrial Eve" is primarily based). But to my knowledge one cannot use the mitochondrial DNA of dead or terminally differentiated keratinocytes to create an embryo.

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