Friday, March 07, 2008

An Ethical Dilemma

Yesterday I was in Baltimore, interviewing at the University of Maryland for their graduate program in microbiology and immunology. One of the professors I talked with had some research that struck my interest quite readily. He was describing the project to me for a few minutes, and I was listening eagerly, until this happened:
Him: Blah blah blah, so that's the project. Also, we have another project starting up analyzing stem cells.

Me: Oh, that sounds very in . . . ter . . . esting . . . Um, what kind of stem cells did you say?

Him: Oh, human embryonic stem cells. We're working on blah blah blah . . .
Yeah. His other research sounded quite interesting, but ESCR? I wouldn't do that myself, and I don't support it. Could I ethically work for someone who does it?


Anonymous said...

It's a wonder you do science at all, considering you're a Christian. Nothing scientific about resurrections or walking on water. I say go for the stem cells, because you're already in a field full of evolutionists. Why stop now?

Hal said...

Nonny, what a gem you are. Why leave even a moniker to your incendiary comments when you can just say something silly? I'm betting you wouldn't say that to someone's face, but that wonderful internet anonymity . . . oh, what a drug.

Anyhow, I already wrote about this. If you'd read my blog, you'd know that I wrote two very large posts about being both a Christian and a scientist. Here are the links, for your edification:

Part I
Part II

-Murphy said...

The ethical question's an interesting one. You could, of course, say that you have ethical objections to work that that professor does, and so you're not going to work for him and have that be that. But then, even if you picked a different group, you'd be working for a school which sanctioned ESCR.

Then again, excluding schools which do conduct ESCR research may leave you with fewer options.

I have no idea. I'm having trouble thinking of something which would similarly challenge me ethically, but that's probably because I've just gotten back from the gym and think I may die soon.

Also, hello Hal.

Hal said...

Good gravy, man, why haven't I heard from you in months?

Anonymous said...

Hey, a little off topic, but what are you planning on going into with a micro/immuno degree?

I'm a medical technologist, so I use more of the application rather than research, but I am interested in what you plan to do!

Best of luck!


Dr. Church said...

I understand your concern. And certainly if you chose to work for him, you would need to make it clear that you would not be able to in good conscience participate in that part of his research. But assuming he hires you for another project, I am not sure it should affect your decision. Otherwise where do you draw the line? Does your advisor have to be a Christian? It certainly would be nice, but odds are not in your favor. (Mine isn't). If he (or she) is not a Christian, you certainly can't expect him to adhere to a similar moral law as you do. This prof. does stem cell research. Another prof. may cheat on his wife. Is there a difference in your working for one or the other? I'm not sure there is. At the end of the day, I don't believe your working on an unrelated project for this person would be a negative. As such, make your decision on the basis of - are you interested in the work? are you excited about the school and area? will it be a good opportunity for you? etc. Most of all - take it from one who knows - do NOT accept a PhD position unless you are genuinely interested in the research you will spend the next several years doing. It will turn you into a bitter, bitter man (just

-Murphy said...

I think there's absolutely a difference between working for someone whose research you object to on moral grounds and working for someone whose lifestyle you object to on moral grounds. By working in the lab of someone whose research you object to, you're essentially going to be signing off on all of it (in the eye of the scientific world) by publishing papers on which your name is connected to that lab. You are not signing off on what your advisor does with his marriage by publishing papers connected to his lab.

Not that I'm even sure how you would come across the information about what a guy you're thinking about working for does with his evenings.

My point underscores my previous point that you may be in effect tacitly approving of it by attending the same university that the research is occuring at. When it was "Animal Rights Week" or whatever a few months ago, they had guards periodically popping in to my lab because, even though we don't do animal research and wouldn't be the target of crazies if they thought logically, we're linked to the people who do perform animal research because we're all in one big university.

That isn't at all to suggest that your understandable moral objections to ESCR are in any way at all even comparable to the animal loonies, but it helps to highlight that in the eye of the public (and the eye of the scientific world) one thing you'll have to think of is that you'll be linked to ESCR.

Now, I don't think I'd take it so far as not going to the university, but the parallel is there.

Also, yeah, I have no idea how we've not talked in like a year. :D

I shall think more on this after I've had a sandwich and gotten a bit more work done.

Anonymous said...

My opinion is that you can work for him in his lab but not on any projects directly related to ESCR. -Ryan.

Greg Tito said...

What exactly is wrong with experimenting on human embryonic stem cells? Because someone told you it was wrong?

I suggest you learn to make your own decisions and not let an antiquated dogma affect research which could potentially HELP millions of people.

Hal said...

SeƱor Tito, if you'd read my site for more than 2 seconds, you'd know that I never make any ethical judgment "because someone told [me] it was wrong."

I'm just one of those "crazies" who think that human life is precious at all stages of development. Consequently, that makes ESCR a rather unscrupulous form of human research.

The argument goes back to the standard canard: Is it a lump of cells or a human being? I'm convinced it's a human being, and you'll be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise.

But hey, why proffer a cogent argument when you can just insult me?

Greg Tito said...

Not insulting you, just railing against the idea that so-called sanctity-of-life is more important than medical research, especially research which can save lives. I don't believe you are killing anything by experimenting on human stem cells, no more so than trapping semen in a latex bag is killing potential babies.

I think you're quandary about whether to work with a scientist whose studies include stem cell research is irrelevant.

Hal said...

Um, no, quite insulting. The whole "you can't think for yourself" thing isn't a compliment.

There is a vast difference between "potential" life and "developing" life. This is the key idea glossed over in many of these debates. To deliberately destroy lives for the sake of saving others . . . you don't see that as at least morally ambiguous?

And I don't understand how my decision whether or not to work with such a man is irrelevant. If I disapprove of ESCR, what does it say that I work for someone who does it?

Greg Tito said...

I was raised Catholic and am quite aware of the mind control techniques exhibited by the clergy even on thinking Christians like yourself. I'm not saying you are mindless, I just think you should question the first premise before questioning the moral dilemma presented above.

In response: the "morally questionable" act of experimenting on a bunch of cells which have not yet formed into a functional whole being seems innocent to me compared to advocating wars which kill a small number of a population in order to save a larger number. Wars which were supported by the Vatican and other Christian leaders like WWII, the 1st Gulf War and our presence in Iraq. How can one make sense of contradictory morality?

Hal said...

Mind-control techniques?

Riiiiiiiight. Color me unimpressed.

And you miss the most important part of the premise when you say that it's experimenting on "cells which have not yet formed into a functional whole being." It's that whole "developing into a whole being" thing that I have a hang-up about. As far as I'm concerned, that makes "it" human.

I would call any arguments about war completely beside the point. Positions about any other topic do not affect the validity of positions on another.

Greg Tito said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Tito said...

Yes. Mind control. It exists in places you may not realize or expect. I have lived it every time I go to church.

For example, how can you ignore arguments involving war? That's exactly the kind of nonsense debate tactic which is the root of the problem. One set of moral rules governing medical research and abortions, another less outraged set for corrupt business practices, sexual abuse and warmongering. I don't understand Christians who essentially got our President elected because he was against abortion, but don't seem to care that his policies are killing men, women AND children in Iraq. You can't talk about one topic separately from another, especially when they are so intertwined.

Developing and potential are identical terms, in this case. The cells in question do not have memories or experiences. They have not felt pain or loss. They have no sense of self. Cells are not people. It's impossible to distinguish every atom that could one day become part of a human and every other atom in the universe. To attempt so is folly.

Hal said...

1) They're not especially entwined. Not everything is about Bush and Iraq.

2) Even if Christians are wrong on war, that doesn't make them wrong on abortion/ESCR. The two just aren't related in the way you want them to be.

That aside, Greg, "developing" and "potential" are completely different terms. If I see an empty plot of land and I imagine building on it, that is potential. If I then begin construction, that is developing. Big difference in both.

Your problem in what you define as a person is that your definition excludes the newly born or the mentally handicapped.

Could you perhaps explain what you mean by "mind control techniques" you experienced at church? I suspect you and I will have wildly different definitions.