The uproar over stem cell research has once again given the genetic sciences the spotlight, and with that spotlight come questions. “Are you making gill-men? Is that what all this is about?” the savvy among us probe. As is usually the case, stem cell research is not actually about gill-men at all, but something else entirely that isn’t terribly interesting. Nonetheless, it is news we must embrace. Why? Because any advance in genetics gets us one step closer to the ultimate goal of all gene tinkering: that someday, it will be raining men. Perhaps even gill-men, though we don’t have the hard facts to back that up.
To date, male-based precipitation research has produced nothing significant. Yet every new finding — be it stem cells or what have you — gives us hope that the ultimate prize is ever closer to our anxious grasp.
What Are Cells?
Cells are the building blocks of humanity. You, for instance, are made out of trillions of teeny tiny little cells, which are apparently really small so, trust me, don’t even bother looking. This is true of all creatures, big and small. Even Rosie O’Donnell, who an astute observer would conclude is composed entirely of fudge, jelly donuts and coagulated gravy, is in actuality made up of the same stuff as you or me.
A horrifying thought, certainly — but also a thought staggering with implications. How can any of us truly be racist, for instance, knowing full well that the folks we’re discriminating against are made up of the same adorable little parts that we are? How can we deny Sylvester Stallone another big box office hit, if we take into account that his cellular make-up is almost identical to our own, no matter how execrable his films may be?
To sum up: cells are small human-building things, the existence of which offers conclusive proof that you should watch Sylvester Stallone movies. This alone is cause for alarm; so it’s easy to see why such small things can stir up so big a fuss.
How Do Cells Know What to Make?
An excellent question. To answer it, you must think of cells as the bricks that make up the you-building. As we all know, a pile of bricks left to their own devices will not make a building. They’ll just sit there like Teamsters. This is where enzymes come in. Enzymes, the proteins that get the cell to transform into one of your you-parts, are the builders. And your DNA, a stringy collection of data that tells the enzymes how to build the you-parts, is the blueprint.
Through a simple metaphor, we have taken a complicated genetic process and made it easy to understand. Unfortunately, we have also simplified it to the point where it is grossly inaccurate. In actuality, cells produce their own enzymes as they need them. Plus, DNA transfers instructions to the enzyme through a complicated process involving RNA molecules and ribosomes. So, to get a more accurate understanding of the process, imagine a construction site where piles of bricks give birth to their own construction workers, the building’s blueprint is popping out instructions that zoom off and gestate inside the workers, and the workers themselves construct the building by setting off chemical reactions inside their own bodies.
Now our metaphor is more accurate. It is also kind of horrifying to think about. If it helps at all, try to imagine the construction workers as cuddly bears. Why, they’re lovable little scamps, aren’t they? Always getting into mischief, sometimes dozing off when they should be working, maybe getting their heads trapped in bowls of honey. Those silly bears!
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are just cells that haven’t been given any instructions yet — they’re a pile of bricks just waiting to be told to transform into something. Recently, scientists have begun to figure out ways of giving stem cells instructions that will start them on their way to becoming things. From a medical perspective, this is a real breakthrough, as it means we could conceivably build sick and ailing people replacement lungs, livers, skin, or anything else that isn’t working. From a raining-men perspective, however, the news is discouraging. Hypothetically, we could use stem cells to stockpile the resources needed to have it rain men’s parts. As an alternative, though, it’s sadly lacking.
Can’t We Just Change a Sick Person’s DNA?
No, not really. Once something’s been built, it can’t actually be un-built. The idea of giving someone new DNA that will change them overnight is a misconception made popular by bad Hollywood movies starring big muscle guys and, lately, Tobey Maguire. The entire Marvel universe, in fact, rests on the assumption that if you were irradiated, exploded, driven over, or otherwise spectacularly mangled, it would jangle up your DNA and give you super-powers. It is not the purpose of this article to argue the merits of Stan Lee’s grasp of molecular biology. However, it’s worth noting that if any of the above were actually true, there would be a risk that you’d suddenly sprout dragonfly wings every time you bumped into a door.
In reality, the best science can do would be to replicate a sick person’s DNA, clone them, and harvest the clone for parts — in other words, rebuild something from scratch. So far, though, the best the cloning sciences can do is duplicate a sheep that is perpetually sick, can’t walk or think right, and costs millions of dollars to keep alive. So don’t hold your breath, basically.
What If We Gave People New DNA Anyway?
Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where those Nazis opened up the ark and had their faces melt off? It wouldn’t be anything like that.
Okay, So Why Is This Stem Cell Business a Problem?
Well, because of where scientists have to get them. Stem cells, remember, are cells that haven’t been built into anything yet. So if you’re in the market for a handful of primo stem cells, you’ll most likely have to get them from something that hasn’t been built yet, i.e., human embryos or fetal tissue. This opens up the age old debate we’re all understandably sick of by now: when can a human being be called a human being? When it’s born? When it’s still in the womb? At the point of conception? When it’s old enough to move out of the house and get a damn job? There are no easy answers here. Just a lot of arguing and picketing.
Saner heads may point out that the pro-life and pro-choice activists should just pick a point randomly and be done with it, on the grounds that most of the world stopped caring about any of this years ago. It’s difficult to be sympathetic to the “every human life is a sacred miracle” argument, after all, when there are over six billion of the sacred little angels consuming our planet’s resources right now. Twenty years from now, when the world population hits critical mass, and we’re all scrounging around for food scraps and living with five hundred of our closest relatives, we’ll be aborting “sacred little miracles” who are well into their late thirties, I assure you. One can’t help but wonder if future generations will look back on our little debate as impossibly quaint, since they’ll most likely be holding lotteries over who gets the privilege of eating a bag full of everyone else’s hair.
So Stem Cell Research ISN’T a Problem?
Well, let’s be fair. Currently, scientists are getting permission from women who have had abortions to extract stem cells from the discarded embryo. Now, if you see stem cells as a goopy pile of embryonic tissue, there isn’t much of a problem.
However: what if those stem cells were a bunch of cuddly little bears? Capering about the forest as cuddly bears do, sitting down to cake-and-honey picnics, playing lively games of charades? Why, those monsters! They’re killing those bears!
This, in essence, is where the problem starts. Pro-life activists feel that using stem cells for research disregards the sanctity of human life, since the stem cells had the potential to build a human being. Scientists have argued that the embryo was aborted anyway, so the choice had been made long before they entered the picture. The pro-lifers argue that the scientists are still destroying the embryos to get the cells, with the headache-inducing implication that the scientists should instead be making the embryos back into babies.
“Why have the abortion in the first place, then?” the exasperated scientists say.
“Exactly!” say the pro-life activists.
Eager to avoid fisticuffs, everybody simply agrees to disagree. Since using stem cells denies the sanctity of human life, the embryo is thrown into the trash instead of used, which somehow makes the pro-life activists happy.
Elsewhere, someone with acute liver problems dies of liver failure. But it could be argued that he would have been the next Hitler anyway, so it’s not entirely relevant.
Is There a Solution to Any of This, Then?
Yes, actually. What needs to be done, clearly, is to give every one of the pro-life activists diseases that cause their lungs, liver and kidneys to fail. Faced with their own imminent mortality, it’s a safe bet many of them will take the time to seriously reappraise their stance on stem cells; cells which, now that they take a closer look, really don’t look much like cuddly bears after all.
Now where’s that kidney?