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January 8th, 2007
02:13 pm

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Huxley wasn't brave enough
After all, Brave New World was set in 2349AD, but we have the progenitors of it here and now.

I think that standing athwart history yelling "stop!" is no longer sufficient (to paraphrase William F Buckley) - we have reached a new pinnacle of human achievement and hubris, the likes of which has not been seen since The Tower of Babel.

Why am I so appalled at the sale of custom-bred, human embryos?

Perhaps because I can easily imagine the horrors of modern-day Morlocks - a slave species specifically created to serve us. In the words of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, "it is a poor thing for one being to enslave another."

Perhaps because this is yet another example of the cheapening of human life - from the work of PeTA (c.f. Ingrid Newkirk famously saying "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."), to the dramatic declines in the rates of incidence of Down's Syndrome due to elective abortion, to Peter Singer justifying infanticide, we have steadily both priced humanity cheaply and dearly: dearly in that personal autonomy (i.e. "choice") is elevated to idolatrous levels (witness the attempts of those who oppose abortion and those who want deterministic school attendance to avoid being called "anti-choice"); and cheaply in that the stated driving reason for these particular entrepreneurs to start their business is to reduce the cost of creating a child.

Consider for a moment one of the key differences between the sale of embryos and that of gametes: if I pour a test tube of gametes onto a growth medium, they're dead in a few days. If I put an embryo in a growth medium, I get a unique person. Thought experiement: if I collect gametes from two individuals (assume 20 eggs from the woman, 10cc sperm from the man), and divide the samples in half, and fertilize 10 of the eggs, I will come up with 10 fraternal siblings. They will have some traits in common, but I'd quickly demonstrate that Mendelian analysis would be incomplete: no two of them would be the same. No matter what I did with the other half of the gametes, I would never be able to reproduce any of the previously-created 10 individuals.

It is all too easy to see the possibilities here: we can go a few steps beyond The Jigsaw Man, and instead of using convicts for organs, how about using custom-grown individuals? Why not? There's no reason why they couldn't be grown without higher brain function (or lobotomized / lobectomized when young), so all of a sudden, they'd fall into the class of "thing" rather than person.

If you don't believe what I am suggesting is possible, check out the comments for the article, and the degree of the nihilism of many of the commentators will become painfully clear.

So really, it's the categorization of humans as "things" to which I object strenuously. I am appalled at what we have become, and I am ashamed that other humans could behave in such a way.

Current Location: Frederick, Md.
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[User Picture]
From:selenite
Date:January 8th, 2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
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A few random comments--

I don't see any danger of Morlocks as long as women are choosing what they put in their wombs. Who's going to go to all that trouble (9 months misery + min. 8 years parenting) to get a low-quality worker? Artificial wombs only mitigate the first part of that (see Ethan of Athos). A gov't that can order women to bear specifically designed children and conscript care-givers for nurseries would scare me.

Growing individuals for organ donation is covered by existing laws. It's a person, you're planning on killing it, that's Murder One. Unless you can change the law so that a child born of a human isn't considered a human (current standard) they're protected. Wouldn't be a worthwhile crime anyway, unless you're going to have fifteen years notice of needing a new organ. Medical tech will likely produce better alternatives. If you read Niven, A Gift From Earth tackles that end of it.

Lastly, having dealt with modern fertility treatments, this does not produce cheap children but very expensive and consequently high-valued ones.
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From:thegameiam
Date:January 8th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
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I haven't any Bujold books (although I should probably rectify that: is E of A the best place to start, or would falling free be better?), so I only get the reference from the online summary (yay, Wikipedia!).

I hope you are correct about organ creation: the discussions which surround stem cell research are pretty creepy, to me. I had a person make the argument to me that opposing embryonic stem cell research was condemning him to a life of diabetes. Of course, no promising treatment has yet come out of embryonic stem cell research, and getting the embryonic stem cells necessarily requires the destruction of something that, if nurtured, would grow into an individual...

My response to that person was that for the same reason that if I could cure disease X by killing person Y and having person X bathe in Y's blood, I wouldn't do it, thus there are limits to research. The person reluctantly agreed that there actually are (or should be) limits to scientific research, and what is inside the boundary or outside the boundary was a reasonable topic for disagreement.

The current crop of fertility treatments are certainly expensive for the folks who are { lucky enough to be able to get | unlucky enough to need } them, and of the people I know who have gone through any of them, their children are VERY-highly valued.

However, lots of pretty unpleasant ethical and moral situations get raised as a matter of course - the term "selective reduction" comes to mind...

We're already on treacherous ground: I don't see the Texas firm as helping.
[User Picture]
From:selenite
Date:January 8th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC)
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Oh, my. You haven't read any Bujold? You have much joy ahead of you . . .

Ethan of Athos and Falling Free are standalones in the same universe as her SF series (the Vorkosigan books), so they're good places to start. A good intro to the series is the short story "The Mountains of Mourning." For context, the setting is a planet colonized by humans, cut off, collapsed into barbarism for centuries, and just a few decades back rejoined to interstellar civilization. A number of the stories deal with the social implications of biotech, including all of the ones mentioned above.

There's also a number of fantasy novels by Bujold, but these are in the category of "Really Good Books" rather than "Explorations of the Human Implications of New Tech".
[User Picture]
From:thegameiam
Date:January 8th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
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I eagerly await the devouring which will commence soon... :)
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From:jordan179
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)
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Falling Free in particular addresses the ethical implications of creating races of artificial sapients, highly relevant to your points.
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From:thegameiam
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if that's a hidden pun in the webcomic freefall...
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From:jordan179
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:34 pm (UTC)
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Possibly ... I'm glad to see more Freefall fans out there! That comic addresses numerous issues involving the treatment of artificial sapients, and makes most of them exceedingly funny :)

Florence, of course, is IMO that comic's real star.
[User Picture]
From:selenite
Date:January 8th, 2007 10:07 pm (UTC)
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Meanwhile, in the real world . . .

The dividing line between "disposable flesh" and "potential human" is a fiercely argued one, and I'm probably closer to your position than most. But we also have to deal with the problem that we'll eventually have the tech to take a random cheek cell, treat to it to make it generalized, put it in an artificial womb, and get an inarguable human baby nine months later. Yet we'll still brush our teeth without mercy.

I suspect replacement human organs could come from a number of sources:
1. The clone raised for premeditated murder
2. An organ forced from embryonic stem cells
3. Same, except amniotic or adult stem cells
4. An organ cloned from the recipient's mature cells
5. Artificial mechanisms performing better than the organic original

I think the most cost-effective method will probably not be 1 or 2.

"Selective reduction" is a scary concept, yes.
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From:thegameiam
Date:January 8th, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC)
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I really hope that #5 is the cheapest, or failing that, #4. It's funny that this is a case where capitalism can actually help ethics...

==

Re: the cheek cell - I agree, and having worked in a lot of small rooms, I sure am glad that folks brush their teeth :)

But to use that analogy, there is a qualitative difference between the cheek cells as they are shed and the ones which would be ready to be grown into a person. The same distinction can be applied to gametes / embryo.

I'm certainly not willing to state a clear position on the difference between "lump of flesh, no rights" and "individual, full rights" - that line is way too blurry for me. But I get concerned when the goalposts of the debate get dramatically moved, especially in absence of a clearly-thought-out ethical position.
From:abacaximamao
Date:January 9th, 2007 12:19 am (UTC)

not too worried

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Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I find it interesting, but only mildly worrisome, if at all. I tend to agree with selenite's p.o.v. (except for all the sci-fi stuff, about which I know absolutely nothing).
[User Picture]
From:thegameiam
Date:January 9th, 2007 01:26 am (UTC)

Re: not too worried

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The scary thing to me is that we're now living in a world where science fiction is quickly becoming science fact, and we're not any wiser than we were in prior generations...
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From:aitchmark
Date:January 10th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC)
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I share your basic sentiments and thinking. And I also share Selenite's enthusiasm for Bujold; you do indeed have some Good Times ahead of you--though I'd start with THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE--mostly because THE MOUNTAINS OF MOURNING is most conveniently available in a collection full of stories that come after Apprentice.

I am not sure how good we humans are at heading things off at the pass, so to speak. Nor am I entirely sure how good we should be. There are far more hypothetical dangers than currently real ones, from the farming of brain-dead clones as transplant organ sources to Manhattan being partially submerged because of global warming. Both things we'd all (I hope) prefer to avoid; neither is a certainty.

It seems a very human thing to say something *might* happen, and point out that that something is so horrible to contemplate that we must nip it in the bud, and stop everything that might lead to it.

I know that as a parent, I sometimes found myself extrapolating forward from a behavior or attitude in my daughter that threatened to leave me as upset as if she had actually gotten pregnant at 14 while smoking dope and robbing liquor stores... only to realize that she was, after all, only 6 years old, and permitted a certain childishness in her normal path of development. In the case of parenting, bud-nipping can get badly out of hand and lead to all kinds of undesirable consequences.

The analogy isn't accurate, but it can be illuminating, at least a little bit. Trends are more to be watched than a single development; the totality of the character of of our civilization has to be considered as well and the tendency of one segment of the population. A person with a mean streak may end up becoming very good at kindness, horrified at their own potential cruelty.

Or they may let the mean streak grow to rule their life.

As it happens, I am sufficiently disturbed by my perception of the general character of our civilization to have some concern, generally, about all kinds of possible future problems. The balance I try to strike to to work for things I hope will grow, oppose what currently exists that I think needs opposition, and remember that the one thing common to most of the history I read is how much of what has happened managed to take people by surprise, despite this very human tendency of ours to try to live in the future.

And now I have to go take my anti-pomposity pill; apparently I missed my dose this morning!
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From:thegameiam
Date:January 10th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
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Got any to share? I could use one too... :)

You have a fair point: living in the present, and fairly evaluating the issues of the here and now is more important than worrying about the possible future issues.

But I still think that selling complete, unique individuals in the here-and-now is pretty disturbing, as is the degree of artificial selection we're practicing. Sarah wrote some about that.
[User Picture]
From:aitchmark
Date:January 10th, 2007 11:34 pm (UTC)
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(Can't we all...)

Thanks for the link; I posted an agreement there.

I think selling individuals is a problem too. I was following a thought you triggered in me about the problems of working against possible future problems instead of focusing on current ones--I didn't mean to minimize or ignore your point, and I see that I did. I am easily distracted by shiny things.

I do enjoy your journal, even when I haven't time to comment. Thanks for the stimulating and interesting entries.
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From:jordan179
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)
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I think the important point is whether or not we treat all sapient life we create as possessing civil rights.

If we don't, then we are headed back to the age of slavery, with all the evils that implies. The slaves will simply be classified "nonhumans," even though they will be capable of human-level thought and feeling.

If we do, then it doesn't much matter what we create, since we will be forced to treat all such sapients as human under the law.
[User Picture]
From:thegameiam
Date:September 7th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)

Are we not men?

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It gets worse: look at yesterday's article where the UK allows the creation of Chimeras.

Color me horrified.
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