Fatal CellsWe must not allow medical research to be tainted by allowing it to be linked to abortion.
by T.J. Nelson
hen I was a kid, this is what I heard from my relatives almost every day: scientists built the atomic bomb ... scientists are evil ... Hitler was an intellectual ... intellectuals are evil. Every frickin' day. This was the environment in which I grew up. I kept my neuropharmacology books and my copy of Being and Nothingness—practically my Bible in those days—hidden safely away from these nutty people.
I finally told them to shut up already about Hitler. Hitler, I reminded them, was not an intellectual. By this time I had built a reputation as the kid who knew everything. That one little sentence was enough. I kicked myself for not having said it earlier.
The point is, people's opinions are not always rational. Often they are based on unexamined emotional feelings. The other point is that many people are already inclined to hate science. All they need is an excuse. And as excuses go, being tied to something that causes human death is one of the best.
Last week, a video came out showing someone from Planned Parenthood talking about how they sell tissues and body parts from aborted fetuses to science for research. Although this practice has been known for years, the video is causing widespread outrage. And rightfully so.
It's true that these samples speed up our research enormously, possibly saving many lives. But there are many other things that could speed up our research that we don't do. We don't, for example, obtain funds by kidnapping people or by selling illegal drugs, even though doing so might save even more lives.
Public opinion is slowly but inexorably turning against abortion. Fifty years from now, I tell my colleagues, no one will care that you cured cancer or Alzheimer's disease. All they will remember is that you killed babies and did experiments on their brain cells. Not because it's true, but because that's what they'll be taught by the news media and the schools.
They will speak of you in the same way that we today speak of Josef Mengele and the Japanese doctors who froze prisoners to death to measure their resistance to cold. They will call you Nazis, even as they bask in their cancer-free 120-year-long lives, munching on their genetically engineered three-foot-diameter donuts, but free of disease and more or less alert to the end. And they will be right.
When I say this to my science colleagues, they suddenly remember there's an important lecture on bezoars over in the gastroenterology department.
I used human neurons once in an experiment. They were from a little girl who had half of her brain removed to treat intractable epilepsy—a last desperate measure that doctors used to save her life. That little girl donated those cells from her own brain to help medical research. Those cells helped thousands of scientists around the world.
I watched that little dish of human brain cells in awe, praying that they would grow. But they were mature neurons, and they grew too slowly. I was crushed when they finally died. To me they were just as sacred as the autopsy brain samples that relatives of patients donate to us. The computational power that once filled those little beige cubes—once there was a living soul in there—made my small attempts to study it seem pitiful.
People sometimes say that by using the cells, we're at least keeping part of the person alive that would otherwise be thrown away. But it doesn't change the fact that destroying a human brain is a crime against Nature and using fetal cells encourages it. It is Nature, not humanity's laws, that must guide scientists because human law takes time to catch up to our discoveries. Leaders can't just ask whether it's legal. We must listen to our moral compass.
My colleagues get their cells from a supplier that doesn't say where they get them from, and my colleagues don't ask. I'm told these embryonic cells grow much better, but I refuse to touch them. The thought of how those cells must have been collected makes me sick. But no argument I make seems to hold water. It is perfectly legal to sell them. To most people, that makes it okay.
Some scientists avoid using these cells. But one person in particular has told me several times that I have to use them. I cannot reply that I'm morally opposed to it, because to him that concept has no meaning. It would get me fired faster than if I claimed to be a creationist. So I have to invent an excuse: those cells never work. They don't grow fast enough. I prefer neuroblastoma cells, because they survive longer (which is true: neuroblastomas are a form of cancer. They are immortal, which means they never stop dividing.)
Of course, people like this guy are why we have laws. But by reminding people, by force of example, that embryonic humans are not just clumps of cells but magnificent creations of nature, we would be providing more valuable a public service than curing any disease.
Update July 18, 2015: Some people have gotten the idea I am talking about stem cells here, so it is no longer an issue. Fetal stem cells have been obsolete for at least ten years. I am talking about fetal brain cells (called primary neurons) and primary astrocytes. Most people get them from embryonic rats or mice. Look up “primary neuron isolation procedure” if you are unfamiliar with the term.
Update Aug 15, 2015: One prominent conservative website has published two articles now saying that Planned Parenthood is providing stem cells. It makes them look like they don't know the science. Many, if not most, of the articles on fetal cells in the scientific literature nowadays are discussing ways of avoiding them. Please, guys, check the literature. Almost no one starts projects with fetal stem cells any more!
Update Aug 14, 2015: See here for some comments on the Ben Carson story.