How Not to Save Embryos

Liza Mundy writes in today’s Washington Post that “Children are born every day whose health and well-being are permanently affected by the funding ban for embryo research.”

This isn’t just about the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells. The stem cell restrictions are indirectly resulting in an increase in babies born with health problems such as cerebral palsy.

Here’s how: The popularity of in vitro fertilization and other fertilization treatments has resulted in a dramatic increase in multiple births. But the human womb is designed to carry one baby at a time. So the rise in multiple births has resulted in more babies with health problems.

The number of babies born as triplets, quadruplets or even more rose from about 900 in 1972 to 7,275 in 2004. That same year, the highest number of twins ever were born — 132,000, nearly double the number born in 1980. Not coincidentally, there has also been a rise in premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

Some of these problems could be eliminated if doctors performing in vitro fertilization could learn more about embryos. But federal law prohibits the research.

In 1996 a law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment took effect prohibiting funding research involving the creation or destruction of embryos. The provision is regularly passed as part of the Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill. It has become a conservative touchstone.

The upshot is that scientists who receive federal funding — and most good scientists do — cannot use any part of it, even indirectly, to study the embryos that IVF creates so as to learn how to better assess their viability. “There is so much we do not know about the human embryo that we need to,” said scientist James Trimarchi. “The truth is, we really don’t know anything.”

Doctors performing in vitro fertilization routinely implant multiple embryos to ensure at least one will be viable. But if all of them are viable — hello, quadruplets. Further, doctors may be making other mistakes in the handling of the fertilized eggs that could compromise the long-term health of “in vitro” babies.

U.S. scientists acknowledged that there is much they don’t know, including whether embryos are affected by the media in which they are cultured, and the long-term impact of the increasingly invasive lab techniques that IVF now often involves.

These complications arise from a peculiar belief, held by many Christian conservatives, that a human blastocyst has the same inherent value as a baby or child or adult. An aggressive, politicized religious Right has imposed its will on the rest of us, knocking science and sensibility out of the way in their single-minded determination to “protect” embryos. And their “protection” of embryos hurts embryos.

I think one could make a moral argument that we shouldn’t be doing procedures like in vitro fertilization if we’re going to be half-assed about it.

In a related story, Rick Weiss reports in WaPo that researchers think they have found a way to get stem cells with the same properties as embryonic stem cells from tissue other than embryos.

Three teams of scientists said today they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process — an advance that, if it works with human cells, could revolutionize stem cell research and defuse one of the hottest bioethical controversies of the decade.

In work being published online today, the scientists reported two new ways of turning back the biological clocks of skin cells growing in laboratory dishes. Thus rejuvenated, the cells gave rise to daughter cells that were able to become all the parts needed to make a new mouse.

Of course, it could be years before the researchers know whether this will work with humans, or if the resulting cells really do have the same properties of embryonic stem cells. But conservatives have already seized upon this research to argue that scientists don’t need embryos to do stem cell research.

“A human is not a mouse, so a lot more work has to be done,” said Marius Wernig, who led one team with Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

But opponents of human embryo research said the findings bolster their argument that stem cell science can progress apace without harming human embryos.

“Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Seems to me that even if the new process eliminates the need to destroy embryos to get stem cells, we are left with our current blind spots about embryos. And we’ll still have too many premature births, infants born with low birth weights and disorders — such as cerebral palsy — that can occur when a premature baby’s brain is insufficiently developed.

We do seem to have a lot of insufficiently developed brains in this country, don’t we?

Dear Lulu: People Live Here

The second day after 9/11, New Yorkers were officially summoned back to their lives. Commuters flowed into Manhattan by auto and train, through tunnels and over bridges. They piled back onto the city’s buses and subways. They maneuvered around the growing number of sidewalk shrines in the shadows of world-famous landmarks like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.

In short, we who live and work in New York City spent our days in a labyrinth of prime targets for terrorists. And we were not unmindful of this.

On 9/13 I remember riding the downtown local Seventh Avenue train toward my place of employment in Chelsea. Before the cataclysm this train went to the World Trade Center; people who lived on the West Side could ride it to their jobs in the Financial District. But on that day, we all knew, the train would stop short of its usual route, because part of the tunnel was collapsed under the smoldering ruins of the towers. And on that day I saw a Financial District sort of guy — good suit, gold watch, leather briefcase — riding that train. He was trembling. He shifted in his seat and muttered to himself. He was terrified. God only knows what that man had seen with his own eyes just two days before. Other commuters stood around him, clinging to poles and swaying with the subway car. They were silent and respectful, and they clustered around him like protective angels. But the fact is we were all flesh, and we were locked inside a metal and glass thing hurtling through miles of unguarded underground tunnels.

We all knew that. Yet we got on the subway, anyway. We had to get to work.

In those first few days, rumors flew about poison gas in the subways and mysterious packages left on buses. One such rumor caused a co-worker of mine to faint from fear. She laid on the office floor moaning, and her husband had to come in a car to take her home.

Military planes guarded the city, and every time one flew close to the high-rise office building I worked in (which had given us a clear view of the atrocity) we all dashed to the windows to see if it was one of Them. I suppose you could say we were a bit twitchy.

But the point is that life is what it is, and if you lived or worked in Manhattan, you had to overcome your nerves and get on with things. “Getting on with things” doesn’t mean forgetting. It means making peace, somehow, with your own vulnerabilities.

This past Monday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talked about the alleged plot to “blow up” JFK airport:

“There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life,” he said.

That “What, me worry?” attitude pretty much sums up Bloomberg’s advice to New Yorkers on the terror plot. As far as he was concerned, the professionals were on it, so New Yorkers shouldn’t let it tax their brains.

“You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist,” he added.

The Usual Screechers, naturally, are outraged. Michelle Malkin says non-worriers are “ostriches.” “Add NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg to the gathering of ostriches,” she sneers.

In other words, according to Lulu, if one is not living in a constant state of terror, one is an “ostrich.”

I’ve got news for you, toots: People can’t live that way. And some of us, you know, live here. And if we choose to stay here, we must expose our precious flesh to the dangers of subways and tunnels and bridges and high-rise office buildings and Muslim taxi drivers every single damn day.

But just because we are not in a constant state of mind-numbing, inchoate fear, does not mean we are not mindful of what can happen. A whole lot of of watched the worst that terrorism can do with our own eyes. We were not sitting safely in our living rooms watching a little picture on a television. We were there. We lived with it. And we lived with the shrines and the smell and the sorrow for weeks after.

Believe me, you don’t forget something like that.

We’re still living with the hole in the city. I walked by it just a couple of days ago. Nobody’s forgotten anything. People still cluster in front of St. Paul’s to read the sidewalk display about the recovery effort. There’s still a big flag hung on the front of the Stock Exchange, and another from the ceiling in Grand Central Station, where armed National Guard still stroll through the corridors.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m very happy that law enforcement is watching our airports so vigilantly that even half-assed plots are nipped in the bud. I fly into and out of New York City airports from time to time.

However, I don’t see anything useful about fear-mongering. Fear does have its uses, of course. If you confront a snarling dog, for example, fear gives you that nice shot of adrenaline that might help you climb a tree to safety. But the reality of modern life is that most of the scary things we face are things we can’t run away from. If we’re going to live our lives as we choose to live them, fear is an obstacle that must be overcome. Stirring up more fear isn’t helping anyone.

Fear isn’t helping anyone but some politicians, I should say.

New Yorkers on the whole do not like it when some politician frightens us with a terrorism threat, and we find out later the threat was absurd (e.g., destroying the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch). We get annoyed when news stories hype a threat to the office buildings we work in, and then we find out the threat was based on three-year-old information. And we do not appreciate someone who lives somewhere else, who was hundreds or thousands of miles away from Manhattan on 9/11, screeching at us that we’re supposed to be afraid. And that if we’re not afraid, we must not understand the dangers we live in.

You want to step over here and say that, Michelle? Out loud? On a New York City sidewalk? You might not like the reaction you get. You should be afraid, actually.

Update: See also Liberal Values, Oliver Willis, Gawker.

Update 2: See Happy Furry Puppy Story Time.