Senator Specter’s Snake Oil

Funky recently sent an email to Senater Arlen Specter regarding stem cells and cloning. He got the following response, which he forwarded to me. I was more than happy to fisk it for him. Senator Specter is a noted proponent of science and embryonic stem cell research in particular. As his letter to Funky indicates below, he should spend less time advocating and more time with a undergraduate-biology text, as he makes some very basic mistakes in describing what cloning is and is not. Presumably he sent similar letter to other constituents, and so fisking this mess of half-truths is even more important.

"Cloning and stem cell research have been topics of much debate over the past several months. Unfortunately, a key fact that sometimes gets lost in the rhetoric is that there are really two types of cloning: therapeutic cloning, which is not really cloning at all, and reproductive cloning."

Okay, therapeutic cloning is not really cloning, we’re going to have some words about that, but let’s see how this is developed first.

"I believe that human reproductive cloning is unethical, irresponsible, and dangerous. However, the other technique, which has been misnamed therapeutic cloning, is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. The entire procedure takes place in a petri dish, not in a person. Also, a sperm never fertilizes the egg. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a baby is never born."

Specter considers birth and being fertilized by a sperm to be crucial factors in why therapeutic cloning is not morally wrong, which is curious to say the least.

First off, Specter makes an implicit error in describing cloning. He states that since reproductive cloning does not involve fertilization with sperm, it is not really cloning. WRONG. The whole idea with cloning is that you do not combine genes from different organisms (i.e., a male and a female) but take them from ONE organism. NEITHER reproductive nor therapeutic cloning use sperm, since that contradicts what a clone is supposed to be. For a supposed advocate of science research, this sort of mistake or ambiguity (Maybe he was trying to make some sort of different point? Maybe it was the intern’s fault?) is a disgrace.

Now let’s get into some other issues. At the end of the paragraph, we read that therapeutic cloning is okay because "a baby is never born". Well, once again, we hit the issue of abortion and when personhood begins.

We also see that because a child is not born, it is okay. Does this mean that we must spend some time in a uterus to have our humanity conferred upon us? What is the substance in the uterus or placenta that does that?

One of my pet peeves is that the "life begins at conception" position is called religious, whereas hand-waving type arguments such as "personhood begins at birth" are not, even though the latter cannot point to any significant, intrinsic change to organism that would make a believable difference in the organism’s moral status, whereas the conception benchmark can point to the establishment of an organism’s identity as a separate organism with its own genome.

Such arbitrariness finds its apotheosis in utilitarianism, where there is no real inherent personhood, just a relative weighing of everyone’s good. If more benefit from your demise than you would stand to gain from remaining alive, then you lose. Good night.

"On April 21, 2005, I, with Senators Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch, Tom Harkin and Edward Kennedy introduced S. 876, the "Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2005," which prohibits human cloning while preserving important areas of medical research. My bill would prohibit human reproductive cloning by imposing a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a civil penalty of at least $ 1 million dollars. "

So if we bring a cloned human embryo to term, we’re criminals, but if we kill it early, we can do important research and get Mr. Specter’s applause.

Ya know, people would sometimes attack pro-lifers for going on about "slippery slopes", but read this paragraph of Specter’s closely: it is no longer a matter of "choice" with what we do with our embryos, since now in the case of cloned embryos, Messrs. Specter and Kennedy want to make it mandatory for us to kill cloned embryos, because if we brought them to term, we’d face severe federal penalties. Where is the abortion rhetoric taking us now that our abilities to manipulate organisms are far more varied and powerful than in 1973, when the Supreme Court declared it open season on prenatal human life with Roe v. Wade?

Perhaps within a few decades, we will be able raise a human being from a fertilized egg to a full-term infant without the use of a uterus. Such a child would not be born, and so according to Specter’s letter, perhaps that child would not be a person. Can we do what we want with such children if they are vat-grown, so to speak, and not raised in utero?

"Over the past four years as both Ranking Member, and now Chairman, of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research."

Education, I have convened and participated in 15 hearings at which scientists, patients, and ethicists have described the promise of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, which is also known as nuclear transplantation. Most scientists strongly believe that this research has the potential to cure many of the most devastating diseases and maladies afflicting Americans today, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, severe burns, paralysis and many more. In testimony before my Subcommittee, scientists have estimated that over 100 million Americans are afflicted with diseases that may be treated or cured using what our scientists are learning from stem cell and nuclear transplantation research.

Okay, check out Do No Harm and see that adult stem cells are delivering the goods on many of those diseases in the here and now. Adult stem cells are technically simpler to harvest and manipulate–recall the KISS principle of engineering: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Alzheimer’s is a red herring for embryonic researchers: replacing the brain tissue will not necessarily replace the personality who originally got the dementia. Besides, if you do not focus on the amyloid plaque production that causes Alzheimer’s in the first place, trying to make new neurons and glial cells doesn’t make much sense.

With their ability to replace damaged cells and tissue, stem cells appear to be a veritable fountain of youth.

Ah, and folks like Specter think that pro-lifers are manipulative by playing on people’s guilt for killing fetuses, yet these guys make promises about fountains of youth when even big embryonic researchers, like the cloning researcher in South Korea, admit that any sort of human treatment may be a decade or more past the horizon.

In the meantime we are getting many adult stem cell treatments either in the market now, or in the FDA pipeline. How long before embryonic stuff even gets to the beginning of the FDA’s arduous testing?

For a quick fisking of embryonic research rhetoric, check out this First Things article.

"In their embryonic stage, stem cells show great promise for a wide range of therapeutic use, as they are capable of giving rise to any cell type in the body. If a person’s neurons have been damaged by Parkinson’s disease, the stem cells can be turned into brain cells and used to replace the patient’s damaged cells. If a patient has suffered heart damage, stem cells can be turned into heart cells and replace the patient’s damaged cells with new, healthy heart cells."

Again, already being done with adult stem cells, and without the risk of rejection from using foreign embryonic stem cells, or the baroque process of cloning one’s own embryos to create genetically identical stem cells. See my point about KISS above.

"Nuclear transplantation is one of the most promising techniques using stem cells. This technique combines a donated, unfertilized egg with the nucleus of a body cell from a patient. This creates an embryo that is genetically identical to the patient. Next, the cells divide and form a hollow ball of about 100 cells from which stem cells can be derived. These stem cells can then be turned into whatever type of cells the patient needs to repair damage done by injury or disease. Therapeutic cloning is not what most Americans think of when they hear the word cloning. Most importantly, and unlike reproductive cloning, a cloned baby is never born."

Which begs the question of abortion and personhood. The paragraph does describe the process of cloning and killing very well in a technical sense, but it does not solve any moral debates.

"This promise of this research is so great that 40 Nobel prize winners, over 100 patient advocacy groups, actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, Kevin Kline, and former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have written to Congress and the President pleading with us to ban reproductive cloning but allow nuclear transplantation and stem cell research to go forward. The legislation that I have introduced does exactly this. Importantly, my bill would allow medical research into nuclear transplantation, thereby allowing promising research towards cures for a vast array of disease to proceed. In addition, my bill would apply strict Federal ethical requirements to all nuclear transplantation research, which includes informed consent, an ethics review board, and protections for the safety and privacy of research participants."

Ah, so here were are trying to bank on some sort of inherent moral authority that Nobel prize-winners, actors, and politicians possess.

So if a scientist says that something is good, it must be so? History makes me skeptical, to say the least. Many scientists once advocated eugenics–the USA had a thriving eugenics movement that the Nazis used at a template for their own work, and eugenics was quite trendy until WWII and news of the Holocaust snapped people out of it. Where was the morality in that? What makes scientists more inherently ethical than others?

In short, using scientists as a sort of secular priesthood, or permitting any elite to define its own values and compel the public as a whole to follow these values without a broader dialogue and consensus is incompatible with a Republic. I wish that a Senator of all people could do better!

And why should I give a rat’s tail what a Hollwood actor thinks? Many Hollwood actors think that bad thoughts were implanted in us by an evil alien named Xenu, a la Scientology. At least Nobel prize-winners have actually done some real thinking about something at some point in their lives. They’re a less laughable authority than Hollywood.

I’ll do y’all a favor and not get started on Clinton. Former President Ford, I can understand, since from what I’ve heard he may be even clumsier than me, and no doubt wants a reliable supply of spare parts. Perhaps he could be turned around with some good demonstrations of existing non-embryonic technologies. πŸ™‚

"Currently, it is unclear whether either bill has the votes needed to pass the Senate. I am hopeful, however, that Congress will be able to move ahead in banning reproductive cloning, while simultaneously establishing a regulatory group to oversee how the science of nuclear transplantation helps discover life sustaining cures. While some people consider research on human embryos inherently unethical, I believe that such objections might be outweighed if the research on nuclear transplantation was proven to be beneficial for the purposes of saving the lives of many Americans."

The same has been said for other controversial research before, and I feel ill that a Jewish person, of all ethnic minorities, can say this without a second thought. How quickly we forget!

Medical atrocities happen within the US; many people know about how poor rural blacks were used as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, but even more recently in the 1960s, a New York City facility (Willowbrook State School) deliberately infected mentally retarded patients with hepatatis as a research experiment.

But hey, syphilis and hepatitis are serious public health risks, so while you and I consider it unethical, it is in the public good, right? And it’s only retarded people and poor blacks, right? What were they going to do anyway?

"Again, thank you for bringing your views to my attention. Be assured that I will remain attentive to your concerns as the Congress grapples with this difficult, yet vitally important issue affecting so many lives. If you have any further questions on this issue or any related matter, please do not hesitate to contact me or visit my website, at "

Oh, you’ll be hearing from us again, Mr. Senator…. Mwah ha ha ha! πŸ˜‰


Here’s a news article relevant to this topic:

"Option to stem cells found: Pitt experts say placental cells offer palatable alternative"

"University of Pittsburgh researchers have discovered that one type of cell in the human placenta has characteristics that are strikingly similar to embryonic stem cells in their ability to regenerate a wide variety of tissues."

64 thoughts on “Senator Specter’s Snake Oil

  1. gbm3

    “I think it is worth mentioning that the abortions available during the early-church were quite dangerous and usually for the later stages(as I recall).” -dlw

    Don’t know.


    “Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.” (The Soul 25 [A.D. 210] by Tertullian; )

    This is to illustrate that the belief of the Church regarding the humanness of the newly formed existed from its beginning.

    “Requiring people to protect offspring they wouldn’t keep if they had the choice isn’t going to make anything better.”

    “I have spent too much time with too many kids in public school to believe every one of them should exist. Kids didn’t ask to be born and having more of them isn’t always a good thing. Sure, any kid from low circumstances has the potential to do great things. But let’s be honest. Statistically, it’s much more likely for any given kid to be a criminal, an indigent parasite, or a depressed blue collar worker just scraping by.” -theomorph

    Wow! Utilitarianism at its apex. Better=more useful.

    It might sound funny, but…

    My kid loves Thomas (the tank engine) & Friends. The main moral of the theme song: they are really useful engines.

    I really despise the emphasis on usefulness as the end to life (and the show for that matter; I donÂ’t understand the fact that the writer was a minister: maybe the protestant work ethic at play).

    Why? There’s more to life that what one can do. I think this is where the RCC has it right: dignity in work/utility is apparent, but one’s dignity as a human is not derived from it.

    One’s dignity simply comes from being a creation of God.

    I can see, theomorph, why you don’t see this. Without God, there is no point besides yourself: getting as much as you can here and making sure no one else takes it from you.

  2. dlw

    I wanted to apologize for my remark about papal infallibity in my last post.

    And Funky, get over yourself. What’s with this pointing out logical fallacies stuff without actually getting involved in a discussion?


  3. Funky Dung

    P.S. I recognize and accept that I am often one of the obstinate fools – if not here, then in Real Life™. I thought I ought to point that out lest anyone should think I was being overly harsh or perhaps ignorant of the stench of my own excrement. πŸ˜‰

  4. Funky Dung

    I see this thread has outlived its usefulness. I have no way of closing comments for a post, so I’ll just have to ask folks to respect my request to stop the thread here. If you would like to hash this out further – using a modicum of civility and charitable interpretation of each other – by all means write your own posts on the matter. Since David has a blog and Steve does not, the latter is invited to write a post for my blog. I implore both of you to read up on logical fallacies (check the links in my sidebar or Wikipedia for help) before writing. Pay particular attention to argumentum ad hominem personam, ad hominem tu quoque, ad odium, ad antiquitatem, ad temperantiam, ad ignorantiam. Actually, they’re all quite interesting and informative, but those in particualr stood out as necessary for you two.

    I like that both of you comment. I enjoy contemplating your very different views. I don’t wish either of you to stop coming here and provoking discussion. I would, however, appreciate if the two of you could keep your pissing contests to yourselves. There’s a point – and we reached it some time ago here – where the argument is no longer interesting or fruitful for other participants and becomes a cock fight between two obstinate fools.

  5. Steve Nicoloso

    David, you’re still not getting it: You actually believe that we can arrive at a mutually acceptable conclusion regarding human life by the employment of reason. You are not alone in this belief. This is, in fact, the foundational flaw of all of Protestantism, originating in Luther himself (tho’ to be fair he had plenty of impetus from Augustine and the scholastics–he took them one step further). But it is a flaw, a flaw that I think is already proving fatal to survival of orthodoxy within protestantism. Protestantism is simply juvenile agnosticism. Protestantism remains orthodox in precise proportion to the extent that it denies its own fundamental tenets.

    Now I agree that faith and reason are intertwined–so much so as to be mutually incoherent without each other. But it is you that is attempting the untangling… not me. Protection of human life is a settled question for the Church. I believe (an act of the will) that the Church has spoken infallibly on the matter. The transcendant (revelation, infallibly interpreted) holds trump. To deny this is to intentionally exercise our will to disbelieve our own tradition. No amount of rationalization, no amount of information, can change this. God could surprise me, but it would have to be him doing it… And he’d probably have to kill me to convince me.

    And I think you are shifting your guilt off on Jerry here. He is not the one who deems a human zygote to have roughly the ethical equivalency of a human brain cell. You do.


  6. Funky Dung

    Since when does Merriam-Webster Online represent the totality of medical science? Wouldn’t any of these definitions (by that kind of standard) be just as good? I’m not convinced a zygote isn’t an organism just because Merriam-Webster don’t say it is.

  7. gbm3

    FD is right, we shouldn’t be stumbling blocks for each other. Unfortunately, we sometimes are, I’m sorry if I was.

    This goes to show that I don’t have it all together. I was offended (it takes much for it to happen) when I read theomorph’s comments:

    “Requiring people to protect offspring they wouldn’t keep if they had the choice isn’t going to make anything better.”

    “I have spent too much time with too many kids in public school to believe every one of them should exist. Kids didn’t ask to be born and having more of them isn’t always a good thing. Sure, any kid from low circumstances has the potential to do great things. But let’s be honest. Statistically, it’s much more likely for any given kid to be a criminal, an indigent parasite, or a depressed blue collar worker just scraping by.”
    “But so long as people can just keep having [babies] and handing them over to the state, I’m all for a temporary moratorium on reproduction, even if it means destroying millions of embryos and fetuses. They aren’t people yet. Most of them would be better off not coming into this world anyway. Maybe that’s pessimistic, but I like living kids too much to wish for huge, unmanageable numbers of them being handed over to the state for education, health care, and welfare.”

    I come out of and have seen lots of this taking place to varying degrees. Too many of these people have been looked down upon and have been unable to get beyond it. They make mistakes, their parents made mistakes; who hasn’t made mistakes? We can say if they were never born, they wouldn’t be a burden, but if our thinking was changed affectively to see and treat them as gifts from God from their beginning as an individual human entity, even if small, more of them, including their parents, could be turned around to something positive (mentally, spiritually, and/or physically).

    As Jesus said there will always be the poor (in many ways), but effectively serving a genocidal mandatorium is not the way to handle it.

    At this point I will stop in this specific discussion, save I offend again (unless there is a very specific point to question). I’m sure another discussion will come to this juncture again.

    Just some facts to clarify:

    I was never protestant. I was baptized Catholic and came back many times. The reasons were/are not utilitarian but simple. I believe in God revealed in and through Jesus. When He said that the “gates of hell will not overcome” His church (Mt 16:18 ), I take it to its end. Jesus didn’t leave His church, sinners that make/made up His church forgot Him.

    I am one of the latter: I constantly loose it. But with help from the Church I am reconciled.

    I do weigh the options, but I try to put God’s desire over mine and my family’s. Many times it is paradoxical, but he’s holier than thou (and everyone).

  8. Steve Nicoloso

    Well, human is both a noun and an adjective. As a noun it is relatively unambiguous. Human as a purely biological modifier to an individual of a species is also unambiguous. This is the way I usually use the term “human” in discussing whether an organism is human or not. The “disembodied brain” would be an organ removed from a human. It is a human brain. It was part of a human. It is not a human.

    Human, in the sense used by Capt. Kirk to describe Spock’s sacraficial death at the end of Wrath of Khan is more ambiguous, and perhaps that is more the kind of definition you’re digging for, but this gets at subjective aspects of humanity. Such aspects are without doubt quite important and may, in fact, be normative in “being human”…. but they don’t seem to help us objectively identify a distinct member of the human species. Theo, you have yourself publicly doubted that consciousness is even definable. And I think we’d all agree that consciousness could not be defined in a way that would be empirically verfiable. So why now make it a critical part of the definition of “human”?

  9. dlw

    The majority of the def’ns by which a newly-formed zygote can be considered a human organism would also apply to most of human cells, as well.

    That’s why it was implicit.


  10. Funky Dung

    Am I imagining things or are people taking things a bit too personally? Let’s keep this civil, folks. I know text doesn’t display emotions well, so perhaps the impression I’m getting is wrong. Even so, let’s not even accidentally be stumbling blocks to each other, other Christians, and especially those who have not accepted the the Gospel.

    Pax Christi

  11. dlw

    Well then using grammar, prove that the square of the length of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the legs. Or restricting yourself to grammar alone, propose a model of atomic structure that predicts the interactions of the chemical elements under standard temperature and pressure.

    I never said grammar “alone” does this. I said that reason/rationality consisted of the correct application of the rules of grammar.
    You’re boring me here, Steve.

    we are human beings and that we do become human beings at a particular point

    I am, for the record, sick of the crockin’ load of bullshit. I know you’ll complain and write ream upon ream about how I am wrong and how I must bow to your superior intellectual understanding of science or dictionaries or moral philosophy or any of the above,

    It’s not a contest. I get no pleasure in debating you for its own sake. But I think you just broke the rules of Ales Rarus about profanity. I don’t want anything from winning. I want these sorts of debates/discussions to get more civil and productive.

    a fertilized oocyte is human (as distinct from other genomes) and it is an organism (as distinct from mere organs). We differ on whether such an entity deserves any or some rights to protection and care, but we ought not play fast and loose with English grammar for mere rhetorical gain.

    It’s not enough to have human dna(or even to have your own unique dna, after all twins do not have their own unique dna and they are still considered individual human beings). I agree that the newly-formed zygote is a living entity, unlike with other human cells or sperms. My point earlier was that organism is too vague of a word. It is subject to too many possible def’ns and not all of them are true for a newly-formed zygote.
    I don’t see this as rhetorical games, but rather playing true to the complicated nature of the english language.

    Well I’m just a protestant seminary student but last I read, the proper ideal hermeneutic for understanding the Bible is the literal one as it would have been understood by the original audience.

    Heh. Assuming facts not in evidence: 1) that there actually is a “proper ideal hermeneutic”, and 2) that we might agree on it.

    If you deny that there is a proper ideal hermeneutic of the Bible, you open the can of relativism of an enormous plurality of subjective interpretations. Oh, but you don’t need to hold to such a hermeneutic since you have the infallibility of the pope to interpret the Bible for you. But where then is the basis for the belief in the infallibility of the pope? It must have been one of those teachings that Jesus shared with the disciples that they just neglected to write down.

    If we aren’t willing to submit to the authority of the Bible as it is best understood within its original context then our faith is watered down and bound to bear bad fruit.

    I don’t see what sorts of fruits you are pointing to to justify the falseness of their [Church Fathers’] teachings

    In the interest of charity, I was attempting to note that Augustine and Aquinas were right about Christian practice (not unnaturally interfering with human reproduction) even tho’ their theories (about a few things) may have been absolute bunk. By contrast, here you are with all these very rational and compelling arguments, but in advocacy of a practice which destroys human organisms. Faith and practice are essentially synonymous. Neither is a synonym for theology (which is, at best, human theorizing).

    I do not oppose some practices that destroy human entities. I do not consider these to be fetus animatus. We can surmise that if Aquinas at least was sent back by God to participate in this debate that he would agree with me. The difference between Aquinas and me is that I am living in a time where technological change has made the sorts of notions that he and Augustine developed to be of more consequence.

    And that brings me back to my point of whether this is an essential or a nonessential issue? And if it is nonessential then why should we claim we will never, not even on the pain of death, change our views on it? Shouldn’t we reserve that level of vehemency for those things that are truly essential to our faith?

    Welcome to adolescence. I say the problem is not and has never been too much fundamentalism, but rather too little of it.

    *lip-twipping*, didn’t you say something earlier about being fed up with rhetorical grand-standing? What do you call the above? Why is the problem too little fundamentalism? And how are you using the word fundamentalism? I usually use it as I did here. And did you notice I did not specifically accuse you of being a fundamentalist? I said that the fundamentalism on both sides of the abortion issue is what is responsible for the policy deadlock on the issue.

    So I’m sorry man, I’m gonna have a little bit of a hard time breaking bread with you and pretending everything just peaches after you describe with profanity my thought out posts as mere rhetorical flourishes that you then go on and call me muddled.

    I see myself as a “Life House” Xtn. I’ve let go of some beliefs I’ve held onto and I don’t claim infallibility for their replacements, but I believe they are consistent with the Biblical worldview of Jesus. If that makes me deter others from seeking a faith in Jesus, digging into the Bible, Church History, learning about Xtn theology then I probably am not acting according to God’s will.

    But I see the opposite happening and so I think Jesus is still alright with me. Jesus is still all right.


  12. Pingback: Defining an Organism {Science} @ Ales Rarus

  13. mrskin

    Looks Michael is doing well so far having Parkinson. When I first heard he had the disease, I thought he’d be dead in a few years. Glad to hear he still kicking and making a difference in the world.

  14. Pingback: Welcome Post-Gazette Readers! :) @ Ales Rarus

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