Magazine article The Spectator

What's Morality Got to Do with It?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's Morality Got to Do with It?

Article excerpt

Every generation lives a little longer than the last - it's the sign of an advancing society. A hundred years ago the average British life expectancy at birth was 45. Now it is 75, giving us a blissful free decade at the end of our working lives to spend fending off great-grandchildren and watching wide-screen television. The downside is that as we live longer and as doctors become better at warding off death, we pass an ever greater percentage of our lives suffering. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, liver failure, blindness, senile dementia, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's, Alzheimer's, arthritis. Whereas we used to fall sick and die off quite quickly, most of us now spend our last 15 years ailing in one way or another - but what can we possibly do about it?

The short answer is to be found in stem cells - the basic blobs out of which every other sort of tissue develops. Since they were first isolated in a lab in Wisconsin in 1998, they have become the great hope of everyone suffering from a chronic or degenerative disease. Every week or so scientists are quoted in newspapers raving about newly discovered stem-cell potential. Only a few tests have so far been done on human cells, but experiments on mice show that at the very least stem cells can be turned into brain neurons, heart muscle, bone, insulinproducing pancreatic tissue, sparkling new corneas. They work biblical-style wonders: crippled rats have got to their feet and walked again after being injected with stem cells (best not to think about how they became crippled), near brain-dead rats have suddenly revived. Christopher Reeve, the paralysed actor who played Superman, has announced that he expects them to heal him too.

On Thursday last week, scientists in Boston reported that stem cells could even cure the menopause. Tests on mice showed that a dose of cells could extend childbearing years, prevent ovarian failure, reverse infertility caused by cancer treatment as well as ageing and help women stay young and energetic without risking illness from HRT. 'It could be the most significant advance in reproductive medicine since the advent of IVF more than 25 years ago,' said Dr Marian Damewood, the president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

There are only two problems with stem cells, two related reasons why no one has yet made their billions selling patent stem-cell therapies to arthritic oil barons. The first is that the technology is very new; it still makes newspaper headlines if scientists manage to develop a stem-cell culture and we are a long way from being brave enough to try them on real people. The second is an ethical problem. Although adult stem cells can be extracted from bone marrow or umbilical-cord blood, these are thought to have limited potential. The exciting, panacea stem cells, the ones that can be transformed into any sort of tissue, must be harvested from early embryos which are, in the process, destroyed. It may be possible, in the future, to magic adult cells into stem cells, to turn back people's biological clocks, but for now, if progress is to be made, it means snuffing out embryonic life.

You might have thought, with good reason, that we no longer give much of a hoot about early embryos (or blastocysts). We seem not to care too much because we actively encourage embryocide. Abortion, for instance, is thought of as a liberation, even though it means the deaths of about 55 million foetuses a year; the morning-after pill is seen as a good thing; the coil - a popular form of contraception - works by destroying fertilised eggs. Even screening for embryonic defects with a view to a kill is sanctioned. Unless you are a pro-life campaigner you probably don't sit up late at night worrying about the embryos lost during the process of in vitro fertilisation (about 300,000 a year), because we approve of a childless woman's right to try to reproduce artificially. Nor do most of us mind that it's legal for scientists to experiment on the embryos left over from IVF - they're going to die anyway; why not make good use of them? …

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