Location: Houston, United States

Monday, April 11, 2005

Promethues Shackled


(Sorry about the title of this post, couldn't think of anything else)

(Note: I would appreciate any feedback on this, good but especially bad. Thanks.)

In these days of conservation and environmental awareness, I feel that it is imperative that we use all the resources at our disposal to their utmost, and to speak out when precious natural resources are being wantonly wasted. We recycle aluminum, glass, paper, steel, plastic, and many other things, but still most of our garbage is being needlessly dumped in landfills or incinerated. Garbage takes up valuable real estate for no true purpose. Scrap lumber that could be used build all manner furniture or be used for home repairs. Old lawnmowers could be fixed up and sold. Slightly worn furniture could be given to the poor. Vegetable matter whose rotting process could be used to help grow more food or produce methane for fuel is instead simply buried in the earth.

All of these things are wasteful, but there is one other area of waste that has so much potential that I marvel at the fact that it has been in the news so little lately. I speak of course about what happens to fetal tissue after an abortion. Normally, it is disposed of as bio-hazardous waste material with zero value. However, with some time and ingenuity this tissue could be the source of great medical and social benefits to humans.

When I speak of great medical benefits, I do not mean the primitive (though possibly salutatory) effects of embryonic stem cell research and treatment, I speak of even greater possibilities for the advancement of medicine possibly even the conquest of death itself. However, like all great projects, the proper groundwork and foundation must be laid in order to support that which will be built upon it.

The first step on this road is really two steps: two technologies that must be developed before anything else. First, some method of keeping the fetus physically, but artificially alive, must be researched and developed. This assumes the abortion method being used is the one where the fetus’ brains are vacuumed out of its skull while it is still in its mother’s womb (and thus while it is still legal). Some sort of artificial brain would have to be developed that would keep the human regulatory system running. Some sort of electronic brain would probably be initially used, but as time goes by perhaps some sort of organic computer will finally be perfected and be available for use in this area. This step may not be wholly necessary if it is possible to vacuum out enough of the brain to keep the fetus from becoming a person (in the eyes of the government and the courts), yet leave enough to keep the body alive and capable of full physical development (perhaps leaving the only the portions of the brain in charge of running the autonomic systems like the hypothalamus and the brain stem, etc.). However, that would be a question for both lawyers and scientists. The second part of the first step would be to develop some sort of artificial womb to allow the ‘converted’ fetuses to physically mature to a more stable level. Another possibility would be to develop a medical procedure that would allow the transferal of the converted fetus to a compensated surrogate ‘mother’ who would carry the creature to term. These two things are absolutely necessary to all of the things which will follow (this assumes the continued legality of abortion or that fetuses are considered property not people). From this foundation, we can go on to greater and more wondrous feats and accomplishments.

Before I go any further discussing the possibilities of this kind of research, I would first like to deal with the political problems that this research would encounter. The political problem is twofold:
The first problem is one of terminology. Scientifically, it does not matter what we would call these creatures; however, politically, it would be vital to the continuation of the program that the proper terminology be used and the improper not be used. Obviously, since these creatures are not human (even though they have human DNA) they should not be referred to as people or humans. I shrink from using the term sub-human even though it would be the simplest and most accurate description of these beings. The emotional and historical baggage associated with that word would be a powerful weapon in the hands of abortion opponents and other religious zealots who would oppose this research. These surgically altered fetuses could be called hairless apes, super chimps, or any other manner of primate related names; however, those kinds of names could also be a propaganda liability and spark a negative reaction from the animal rights activists who have traditionally been our allies. What is needed is a name that will not evoke any sympathy or any other strong emotion from those who hear about these pieces of protoplasmic property, a name that will lead the masses to think of it as a machine, and a machine does need sympathy or pity or any other emotion. For the solution, I looked to mythology and found an answer. The creatures could be called golems. Golems of course being man shaped, but artificial beings created by Hebrew sorcerers in myth. Those more skilled in the art of propaganda may come up with better names in the future, but henceforth in this article they will be referred to as golems.
The second part of the political problem is the physical appearance of the golems themselves. Even though a golem is not a person (we have surgically ensured that), it still looks like a person. This could cause emotional and psychological problems with the researchers who will be experimenting on the golem. In addition, visual images of experiments being done on golems would be a powerful propaganda tool that would be devastating to the continued prospects of this vital research. As an example, look at what happens when animal rights activists use pictures of what happens to experimental animals. It is for this reason our pro-choice, ideological allies in news organizations will not show pictures or video of aborted fetuses. Therefore, insofar as it does not impinge upon the scientific, commercial, and physical viability of the golem, some sort of cosmetic disfigurement of the golem will be required to decapitate this potential hydra of a problem before it can truly begin. In this matter, I looked to the cinema for inspiration. Specifically, I looked to the movies The Black Hole and Star Wars. In Star Wars, who are the bad guys? Darth Vader, The Emperor, and the StormTroopers are the bad guys. What do they have in common? You never see their faces. They have no faces except for Vader and Palpatine whose faces are not shown until the last movie. Vader’s face reveals the pitiable, ‘good’ man within, but Palpatine’s face accentuates his ‘evil’. In The Black Hole, the crew members who have been lobotomized wear reflective face plates which take away their humanity and even causes the heros to think that they are robots for awhile. Thus, I reason that if the face of the golem is totally disfigured or destroyed then much of the problem would be taken care of (if something does not have a face, it’s easier to create and maintain the belief in your mind that the thing is something not worthy or deserving of pity or any other misplaced, enfeebling emotions that only serve to hinder scientific and technological advances).
The first uses of these golems would be in medical research, treatment, experimentation, and instruction. Their uses in all of these fields would greatly accelerate our understanding and skill in each of these areas.
The use of golems in medical instruction would greatly benefit the next generation of doctors. Currently, cadavers are used in these areas and for some purposes (like general anatomy) they would do fine. However, those bodies are dead, non-functioning. Doubtless, if one were an aspiring mechanic or a computer programmer, much could be learned from dissecting and observing the form of non-functioning cars or from looking at computer code (without the benefit of a computer to run it on), but more could be learned from functioning specimens. One could observe how it works and experiment with it to see how minute changes in this area or that area can affect the body as a whole. These new doctors would now also be able to practice many standard medical operations on these golems thus perfecting their skills and methods without fear of killing or injuring a real person.
Golems could also be put to important use in the area of medical research. Gone would be the era of testing new drugs on animals and extrapolating what would happen if the drug were introduced into a human body. Drugs could be tested right away on golems. Potential drug interaction problems could be first sought by giving the golems various combinations of drugs. New surgical procedures could first be tried out on golems (after the appropriate disease or injury had been inflicted upon them) to determine whether or not there was any benefit. These results would also be carried over into other realms where human safety is at stake or where the human body is a vital part of a system. We would no longer have an approximation (no matter how good that approximation may be) of how safe a car would be based upon the reaction of crash-dummies; we would subsitute golems and we would know. Testing of bullet proof vests would become more precise. We wouldn’t have to subjugate animals to the testing of cosmetics, we could use our golems. The use of golems in this area of safety research is would give us much needed information. The Third Reich did similar things with their so-called, ‘sub-human’ captives (like seeing how long they could survive in freezing water), but fortunately we are more enlightened than they were and would ensure (by surgical procedure) that our test subjects really are sub-human and thus allow our data to escape the taint that stained the researchs of the National Socialist German Workers Party.

Thus the first golems would be used to perfect our golem technology so that we can move on to greater things.

However, one of the most important research projects that would involve golems would be the one that would give them artificial brains. The exact type of brain would be irrelevant (electronic, organic, optical, quantum) so long as the golem retains its original pre-natal status of being a non-person (property). The use that these new golems could be put to would only be limited by the subtlety of our software programming abilities. Once golems were made that could interact with their environment, there would be enormous commercial opportunities that would open up to those who perfect this process.
These new programmable golems would be useful in many different areas: domestic servitude, janitorial services, soldiers, sex slaves/reproductive slaves, or any other job which is dangerous or unwholesome or illegal for a real person to perform. Finally, once they reach the end of their useful lives or if they are accidentally killed, they could be used as a source of protein.

In conclusion, I find this to be a very sensible set of proposals and to be the logical course of action given current law and trends in technology. The only problem that I see with this set of proposals is that they are morally/ethically unconscionable. I find that these proposals are no different, in principle, than those of the Carthaginians or the Moabites who surrendered their children to the fires of Moloch, in hopes of improving the lot of their people and their civilization by the good 'graces' of that 'god'. These people were willing to horribly torture and kill their own flesh and blood in order to advance themselves. My question to you is what sort of people would do that? If they would do this, then what would they not do in order to promote their own selfish interests? I leave it to you to decide what to call such people, but in our personal lives, if we ran across such a person, would we not tend to call him treacherous, pitiless, ruthless, or something even worse? Would we want to live next door to such a person? Would we want to do business with such a person? Would we even want to meet such a person? To you who find my ideas revolting yet consider abortion and embryonic stem cell research to be acceptable, I ask you: on what basis do you object? Moral or ethical grounds? It seems to me that those bases for argument were undermined with Roe v. Wade.


Blogger Jeremy said...

Lawrence: I have read you post and there is much there to chew on and digest. There are several points to your argument that will require comments. I am going to think about what you have the post at least 2 more times and then I will post again.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Fay ce que Dieu vouldra said...

While we're at redesigning our society, let us also consider eliminating fetal waste altogether. Instead of pondering either the utter loss of potential scientific and medical advances due to the lack of use of said bio-material or what the most sanitary measure of disposal may be, let us venture down a very different path.

The government cannot tell you how to use or misuse your body, that is a personal decision, however, whilst residing in said government, you must abide by its laws, laws which apply to preserve the sanctitiy of life and have been instituted for the betterment of mankind. Abortion is illegal. After much psychological research, it was decided that the mental trauma undegone by the victims of this ordeal (sic the expectant mothers) was too great to be allowed to continue under government sanction, and therefore was banned, in its platform "Band-Aids" which marked the inception of vast programs aimed at rebuilding "the family" and healing our broken society. Although band-aids do very little to heal large, gaping wounds, it was a start.

Many cried out against the government: "You have no right! It's our body! It's our choice!" The government decreed that it would no longer be a mere convenience of society to operate corner stores where one might dispose of one's "inconvenience", and that the life within an expectant mother was in fact life at conception and therefore said mother, as well as the sower of the seed which produced life, were responsible for the preservation of this life until of legal age.

Now, just like all things illegal, abortions do not cease to occur, however, there are no longer barrels of fetal tissue awaiting diposal, nay, it is rare that any is found at all. And, with the general denouement of the fetal tissue epidemic, medical science stays the course and continues to advance regardless of this resource once considered so essential to its progress.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I know that this may not be a point that you are considering, but when does life begin. If you believe that life begins at conception and that God gives a soul to the baby the moment of conception, then there’s a problem.

In stem cell research, these are fertilized eggs. One argument can be made that they are created outside a mother’s womb and therefore have no potential of life. To destroy stem cells is not destroying a life, because no chance of life exists. While I am no where NEAR an expert on stem cell research and capabilities, I do not think that you could
take the current stem cell in existence, place them in a women’s
uterus, and produce a viable pregnancy.

Back to your blog: the point you make about fetus’ brains being sucked out so as to not violate laws…this is tricky given that the brain is the first thing to develop (the primitive notochord folds to make the brain stem and spinal cord) and it develops early, as early as week 3 after fertilization. Here is a website that shows embryonic development:
Look especially at Stage 9, 19-21 days after fertilization

I am uncertain that if the developing brain were removed at an early age, what the consequences would be concerning further development. Certainly the brain stem would have to be left intact to continue those autonomic functions you mentioned. The cortex (grey and white matter) of the brain is necessary for higher cognitive functioning. Terri Shiavo’s brainstem was unaffected, thus she was able to breathe on her own and blink her eyes, etc. However, it is my understanding that her cortex had been largely replaced by fluid and therefore, no
cognitive functioning…a persistent vegetative state.

Concerning your point of a surrogate “mother”, science would be forced to develop a non-human surrogate. The emotions tied to the birth of a child whether by the natural mother or a surrogate mother (known as a gestational mother) are so strong that the human psyche would be severely damaged asking a woman to carry such a creature. I have
personally witnessed a family who discovered that there unborn child…
somewhere between 4-6 months gestation had hydrocephalus and no chance of life. This family was devastated and had no choice but to induce labor and thus “abort” this child. One might argue that emotions have no place in a discussion like this. But we are human and we have emotions and those can’t be ignored. Making that statement makes me a bit of a hypocrite. My mother recently accused me, concerning the Terri Shiavo case, of making too simple a very complex case. Her husband had the right to pull the feeding tube. Perhaps she was right, but I digress.

The next point you make about using golems so that procedures could be tested by doctors before risking injury to a human being is an interesting one. Certainly my colleagues in the field of surgery
would greatly benefit from being able to perform a bypass operation or a kidney transplant or repair of an aortic tear on a golem knowing that if the “patient” bled out” or if the body rejected the kidney, then no harm had come to a human. Concerning the testing of drugs, certainly, some the side effects of medicine could be measured. Liver enzymes could be watched. Effects of the drug on the heart vessels, muscle, etc. could be monitored for the potential to increase heart
disease. Obesity drugs could be tested on a created, morbidly obese golem. What could not be studied are the mental affects of the drugs. Some people experience headaches. Other drugs make people dizzy. The purpose of some medicine is to help people sleep, which could not be tested on a golem. One of the greatest areas of interest in research today is Alzheimer’s disease and the slowing of it’s progression and even finding a cure. Alzheimer’s attacks the cortex. Parkinson’s and Huntington’s chorea also affect parts of the brain
that would be lost in the gorlem. How a patient responds mentally to a drug is almost as important as how they respond physically.

Concerning Nazi Germany, the technology and power that you profess begs the question of who would be responsible for the responsible use of this technology. The system of checks and balances would have to
be extraordinarily great to ensure that gorlems were not misused…
something that I’m not sure is even close to the realm of
possibility. Why not use gorlems for soldiers. You could create an
endless supply of troops. Imagine if Hitler had been able to mass
produce gorlems. Imagine that he started producing them for “medical research” to cure cancer and diabetes.

If gorlems were accidentally killed or fulfilled their usefulness…how could they be used as a source of protein? Are you proposing that we become a cannibalistic society? Would we feed them to the pigs?

The Carthaginians and Moabites were wrong. Sacrificing their children did not find them favor with their gods. People once believed that the Earth was flat and they Earth was the only planet in the solar system. They, too, were wrong. Just because science or technology has developed the ability TO do something, doesn’t mean that is SHOULD.

I am a tortured soul. I so strongly believe in the sanctity of an unborn life, that there is almost no room for compromise. I make exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger, in the case of rape, or in the event that the fetus is not viable (SEVERE genetic deformities…not Down’s syndrome…) that are NOT compatible with life. Please do not ask me to choose between the life of my unborn child and that of my wife carrying my unborn child. Why rape you ask? Again, it’s considering the emotional trauma
associated with that pregnancy. Giving new life is a choice. It’s a choice that the 15 year old makes as well as the woman who’s
infertile. A woman who is raped did not make that choice. She was
violated and the opinions of another were forced upon her. I could not imagine the emotional abuse of carrying that child to term, even if adoption was the obvious choice.
Furthermore, I am tortured because the doctor in me can see the value of medical research and stem cell research. We have the potential of CURING devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Diabetes. Kidney and liver transplant could be routine and dialysis would become obsolete. My father-in-law dies at the YOUNG age of 51 because diabetes ravaged his body, destroyed his kidneys, and weakened his heart, causing a heart attack that killed him. Yet it is impossible to ignore the moral arguments made. My older brother is mentally/physically handicap. He can do most things in life himself; bathing, eating, dressing, etc. He is not able to live alone, but for the most part able to function “normally”. He has the mind of a steel trap. He remembers phone numbers from 20 yrs ago and never forgets a name or a face. At one point, he could name all 256 (give or take a few) counties in the state of Texas. He probably still can. Yet emotionally, he is that of an 8-10 year old. My brother is the perfect example of why abortion is robbing the world of a valuable soul. He is proof that God doesn’t make mistakes. I would not be the man I am today were it not for the experiences I had growing up. My brother is one of the reasons I chose medicine as my profession. Had he not been born, or given the chance of life, I no doubt would not the man I am today. I feel blessed because of the insight he has given me. It was not always easy, especially for my parents. But they raised him in love and with grace. It is a testament to their faith.
So perhaps I just contradicted myself concerning my stance on abortion. Or perhaps I merely proved my point that there is no simple or easy answer. Curse free will. I have no idea, omonty, if this is what you had in mind when you emailed me and asked me to respond. The title of my blog is “Ramblings of a Med/Peds Intern”. I have certainly rambled here today. One final word; this discussion is tough to have online. There are many questions I have about the points you make and I’m not sure where you stand on a few of the issues raised. I hope that this is a sliver of what you hoped it would be.

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