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Ethics of the Prophets

Bill Schwan

"Do you remember what you said back then, Ben?" my long time associate Julian asked me, as I admired the small statuette that had been given to me earlier in the day at a small ceremony honoring the one-hundredth anniversary of the legalization of cloning.

           "'The results could be staggering. The potential for mankind is just too great to allow politics, soft money or religious zealots to stand in our way.'" It would have been hard for me to forget the quote. It had been the subject of some needlepoint my wife had done years ago and still hung proudly behind the desk in my office. Over the years, the way I had worded things in that address before Congress troubled me, but when placed beside all that had happened in the years since, the angst those words caused me was moot.

           "And they were indeed staggering. You're on what, your third heart?"

           I nodded and said, "Now don't forget that there were plenty of problems to work out, but given time and a little enlightened thought, work them out we did."

           The initial problem to overcome had been the funding issue. We had pressed for federal funding at the start because we didn't expect private industry to jump right into the ethical maelstrom of cloning. But five years after the initial seed money was spent and it became obvious what the technology would be able to achieve, strange bedfellows were seen with increasing regularity. The big tobacco companies worked into the settlement of one of the final federal lawsuits the provision to help fund the cloning of lungs for those affected by use of their products.

           Admittedly, it seemed right and even noble for RJR and its kin to fund such research, but in some corners we heard cynical voices accusing the tobacco barons of simply preserving their market. "Of course they're funding cloning research. If a person can just grow a new lung, then they need not fear disease and can perpetuate an irresponsible habit to the eternal joy of stockholders."

           Then there was the problem of misunderstanding our motives. The function of the cloning bill had never been to make copies, but rather to set up a guideline for growing a spare organ should the need arise, or to jump start the pancreas of a child with juvenile diabetes. The opposition from the moral high ground had been severe and well organized. I really couldn't fault their arguments, but while I could appreciate what they said, I was also capable of taking the long view. I could see where things had the potential for going whereas they either couldn't see or simply refused to see.

           But compromise wins out every time. We came up with a way to market the concept that basically took the average of what people wanted to see done with the technology. No one wanted to see a complete person grown for parts and only the vocal few wanted to ban cloning outright, so we took the mean between the two and the end results made everyone happy. The mean justifies the ends.

           Julian chuckled. "The successes were phenomenal in the early years. We grew close to a million kidneys that first year of full-scale production. Hearts were double that. Rheumatoid arthritis treatments brought in a billion-five in the first two years."

           "You know, it's best to think in terms of the amount of pain relieved, not in terms of dollars and cents," I said with a wink.

           "Right. Just like choosing to ignore the way the planet went from seven-billion people to eight- billion in three years time. I know there were accusations aimed at our replacement technology as a chief instigator in the rapid population rise, what with fewer people dying and all, but things always seem to have a way of working themselves out."

           "Yes, the federal government always steps in when necessary. They raised speed limits, repealed the laws requiring air bags and the like, and imposed the death penalty for jaywalking. Interesting the way the death penalty opponents kind of disappeared. If the technology is working for you, then it becomes easy to turn a deaf ear to people who are sacrificed to keep the technology viable. And when automakers couldn't build engines that went as fast as the new speed limits that would pass emissions tests, the government changed the levels of acceptability. That meant that the ozone layer thinned out some more and we had to come up with a way to grow skin in larger quantities faster. Things just worked out better all around."

           "And then there are those people who have trouble dealing with a replacement part grown from an embryo. Psychologists and psychiatrists are busier than ever helping folks deal with their guilt feelings, and in the end everyone is happy. The affected eventually feel better about it and live better as a result, the psychiatrists stay busy, and everyone is better off."

           At this point, the only problem that remains is the care and maintenance of replacement organs. While the ability to grow a heart for someone is an almost miraculous accomplishment, it still takes five months from stem cell to organ. That means that you either need foreknowledge regarding when your heart muscle is going to cramp up for the last time or you must have a repository of organs on hand, a necessity which is neither cheap nor cost effective. We can usually grow a heart that will be viable for three years after which it must be abandoned and another grown, in my opinion a terrible waste of our resources and the patient's money for the growth and upkeep of an unused organ.

           "Well I've got to run. I'm expected to make an appearance at my great great grandson's birthday party tonight, so I'll have to take a raincheck on the racquetball."

           "Okay, see you Monday."

           Half an hour later, I arrived at my great grandson's house. I spent some time chatting with the parents of the birthday boy and then sat down with the younger man to have some meaningful multi-generational discussion.

           "So what are they teaching you in school these days?" I asked, though I already had a fair idea of the curriculum. At age seven, he was probably being introduced to calculus, beginning a second language and hearing about bioethics in health. We had talked to the N.E.A. eighty years earlier about the importance of their role in making the new technologies seem friendly to the future users of those technologies. To that end, a comprehensive plan was developed that set the stage early in the academic career for a life drama that was expected to include growing your own replacement parts at some point.

           "This week we talked about the kind of work you do, Grampa."

           "And just what do you think I do?"

           "You make hearts for people with bad ones. A fertilized egg divides to a mass of about two-hundred cells, some stem cells are removed, and an organ is grown from those cells. The cells grow in a nurturing machine until it is mature enough to do the job it was meant to do. The teacher told us that this is a perfectly safe and moral way of dealing with illness and not something to give a lot of thought to. It is perfectly ethical and acceptable."

           "And what did you learn?"

           "Oh, nuthin'!"

About the Author (click here) © 2001 Bill Schwan, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           This was basically just something I wanted to say to the folks making bold predictions regarding stem cell research. Apart from any moral implications, I think these folks are courting disaster in the form of problems that no one has even considered. I mean, if you are going to predict the automobile, at least have the decency to predict the traffic jam and smog. The airplane, warn me about jet lag and lost luggage, or you haven't done me any favors.

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