Eugenic Undergrounds: Stem Cells and Human Futures

Article excerpt

Recently, human embryonic stem cells have become a high profile locus around which swarm a host of questions and problems regarding the status of biological life. What is biological life? When does it 'start,' and when does it 'end?' Who has jurisdiction over it? What claims can be made regarding its disposition? These are not new questions by any means, but human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are relatively new research objects, and are fomenting novel attempts to address these questions. They were first identified in mammals in the late 1970s, and the human variety was successfully cultured in the 1990s. In many ways, hESCs were made visible due to a series of remarkable transitions in the study of life. Advances at the molecular and cellular level have produced new tools and techniques, and have coalesced into institutional forms like the discipline of molecular biology, and international enterprises like the Human Genome Project. This set of changes is setting the stage for a new kind of medicine, regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine differs from older forms of medicine: curative medicine uses techniques such as surgery, chemo- or radiation therapies, prosthetics and organ transplantation, and/or pharmacological interventions to isolate and destroy the lesion or infection that is the underlying cause of the pathology, or to mechanically or molecularly replicate lost functionality. Regenerative medicine, on the other hand, constructs replacement parts, such as cells, tissues and organs, which substitute for the malfunctioning biological system. These replacement parts are formed from human (and non-human) biological precursors, for example embryonic stem cells, which can be created from a person's own somatic cells and a donor egg cell (through a process known as nuclear transfer or NT). They can also be amalgams of biological and mechanical parts. Thus cell therapies from NT result in cells that are created in vitro, but are genetically identical to the person needing cell replacement therapy.

HESC research has become a public locus precisely because the possible therapeutic developments would come from embryonic precursors. In other words, it is the research material, not just the aims or outcomes of the science that is controversial. Some argue that regenerative medicine, and hESC research in particular, is provoking a rearticulation of the category of the human. This is evidenced by the sheer volume of writing about things such as 'dignity' and 'posthumanism.' However, I argue that while hESC research is opening up difficult questions, it is not altering the category of the human. Regenerative medicine is coming into focus against a background of actors, including biomedical research institutions, patient advocacy organisations, government policy-makers, biotech and pharma entrepreneurs, and the various opponents and sceptics of possible biotechnological futures. I refer to this background as the field of biotechnology. The category of the human has become a central site for understanding the potential inclusions and exclusions that come with 'our posthuman futures', and I will argue that the ways it is used by different actors in the debates over human stem cell research is articulated through the logics of the field of biotechnology. Yet the 'human' in our possible posthuman futures is never fully overwritten by this field. To make this clear, I will use the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, and his interpretation of Marxian historiography, to help outline how the category of the human is both dependent on, yet simultaneously outside of, the field of biotechnology. Chakrabarty's work provides analytic tools to think about the predicaments that human stem cell research is provoking. For this essay, I will focus on one emerging assemblage of questions and problems that falls under the heading of 'liberal eugenics'. Liberal eugenics represents a way of talking about human enhancements through technoscientific means that may avoid some of the coercions of past authoritarian forms of biological selection, but cannot avoid relying on new zones of exclusion. …