A month ago the European Court of Justice banned patents that require destroying human embryos at and after the blastocyst stage. A month later, the company Geron decided to stop their unique clinical trial concerning a treatment of spinal cord injury with neural cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. The company cited lack of financial resources as their reason. Yet, the termination of their trial illustrates possible consequences of the ruling of the European Court of Justice. Patient groups with, for example, spinal cord injury may less likely hope for efficient treatments.
Bioethics groups, such as the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, saw the ruling as a victory of ethics over greed (here is an interview with the director). I want to ask, though: what kind of ethics really won here? And what was defeated?
According to the philosopher Christian Munthe, the argumentation preceding the ruling was unusually bad. Among the many deficiencies he identifies, there is an important missing premise that moreover is false.
I believe that Munthe is right about the missing premise. But perhaps the most important question is WHY the premise began to haunt the argumentation and implicitly steer it towards the ruling. The missing premise contained a comparison of the destruction of human embryos when stem cells are isolated with killings of prisoners in former Yugoslavia to make money on their organs. Obviously, patents for procedures that involve actions that resemble this crime should be banned. But does isolating stem cells from embryos have such resemblances to the brutalities of civil war?
Evidently, the judge working on the issue speculated about established customs and shared moral views in Europe (“ordre public and morality”). People understand the relevant facts of war sufficiently well to react morally to acts of cruelty against prisoners. This moral view is grounded in an unclouded perception of reality. The development of stem cell treatments, however, is unknown to most of us. When we respond to hearing about such procedures, we easily react to IMAGINARY PICTURES of what isolating embryonic stem cells might be like. These pictures often resemble a chamber of horrors with which the new and unknown is compared… like killing victims of war to sell their organs: a “tech noir” image of the future fundamentally stuck in the past.
Notice that we are not dealing with two known procedures and their perceivable similarity. One of the procedures, the isolation of embryonic stem cells, is unknown to most people. When the judge speculated that people in Europe would see a similarity between isolating stem cells and killing prisoners, this meant speculating about how people might speculate about the unknown, using the known as a pattern. As a result of this speculation about speculations about the unknown, treatments of serious conditions like spinal cord injury are now less likely.
Was the ruling a victory of ethics over greed? Or was ethics defeated by speculations about fantasies about the not yet understood?
Instead of being merely a case of bad logical reasoning, the missing premise exemplifies a tremendous moral difficulty in modern societies. Ethics in these rapidly developing societies demand that we are open to learning about NEW notions and facts. If we are not, we risk responding “morally” to imageries rooted in the past rather than to the new realities.
I admit that developments in medicine pose considerable challenges for moral thought today. An example of the efforts that may be required to avoid questionable comparisons and imaginations is an article in Stem Cells, written by Mats G. Hansson at CRB with Gert Helgesson, Richard Wessman and Rudolf Jaenisch. The article is technically advanced and I’m pondering whether the relevant facts could be explained in simpler terms.
While waiting for future posts that may summarize the thoughts less technically, I recommend it as a warning against temptations to compare new facts with a cabinet of old threats.