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19 November 2007
Fight Information With Information
From the issue of cloning to publication of research in journals to intelligence tests carried out on various peoples to reproductive health, a brigade of 'conscience keepers' springs up to protest something it does not understand fully
Cloning is now a hot topic of discussion in the fora of medical ethics. Prof Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh University, who gained celebrity status and attracted criticism equally for cloning the first mammal from an adult cell in 1996, has decided not to pursue a licence to clone human embryoes which he was awarded two years ago in favour of a method pioneered by Prof Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, Japan, who has managed to create stem cells from fragments of skin in mice without using embryos.
A UN report called last week for efforts to ban reproductive cloning worldwide after a US research team reported the first-ever cloning of a rhesus monkey whose embryo was cloned from adult cells and then grown to generate stem cells. 'Moralists' fear it is probably a question of when -- and not if -- the first human clone will be born!
How much the media is now scared of moralists was witnessed when Nature published last week the news of the creation of stem cells from cloned monkey embryos. The journal took the unprecedented step of inviting an independent third party to validate the paper before publication. It then published that validation study alongside the original research by a US team at Oregon Health and Science University. Normally, scientific findings are only validated by third parties after they are published. Peer review, the checking of the paper itself by relevant experts, is usually the main form of quality control before publication.
In 2005, the journal Science retracted a study by South Korean scientist Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, who said he had produced cloned human embryonic stem cells. The scientist later admitted he had faked his data. Nature must have tried to avoid the kind of embarrassment Science had to meet.
In another question of medical ethics, our Government had banned sex determination tests on foetuses for the fear of female foeticide without much public debate on the issue in 1994. Yet, the scourge continues in semi-urban parts of the country with impunity. What is ironical, the "girl birth deficit" is more common among educated women. Clearly, these "educated" women and their equally "educated" husbands are halfwits. Their partial information needs to be addressed with full information on the implications of their gender-biased act. Alas, for their diabolical acts, those parents who are ethically educated cannot know the gender of their to-be born baby, a useful piece of information in the preparation for parenting.
One common factor that misses the ethics brigade in each case is that in this age of liberal communication, no science/ information, ethical or otherwise, can be blocked from the public domain. It will find a way -- among scientists through slips of the tongue during talks between peers and the lay people through Internet -- to sneak in. Therefore, the only possible redressal mechanism is to fight abuse-prone information with useful information.
And then recently, my op-editorial article in The Pioneer, “Nothing racist about it” (October 31), led to heated exchanges between some readers of the newspaper, with one set saying IQ tests were drafted with malafide intentions of White people and the opposing group questioning why then Mongoloids would be judged to have intelligence superior to the Whites and why pointing out the dominance of the Blacks in athletics was not racism.
It is pertinent to note that while a research that is accused of being biased takes years or decades to accomplish, all that the ethical brigade has to do is write a polemic article from the comfort of one's living room without any rigorous fieldwork.
In case of protests to cloning, how many protesters know that the human body has been cloning naturally for ages? A clone of cells refers to the descendants of a single parental cell. As such, adult organisms can be viewed as clones because all their parts stem from a single cell -- the fertilised egg. Likewise, many tumours are clones, derived from one aberrant cell that no longer obeys the normal rules of growth control. Offspring of organisms that reproduce asexually, like corals, are also clones, as are identical twins produced by the natural or deliberate splitting of an embryo.
In the past, every time there has been news of cloning, a whole lot of people, without second thoughts, have cried, "Immorality! Gosh, the world's now going to be filled with 'copies' of individuals." Little do such protesters realise that the unfertilised eggs of all mammals accumulate a supply of proteins and the means of making more protein as they mature in the ovary of the mother. This way, the egg brings with it a larder for the embryo to make use of until the embryo's own genes become active and supply these things for itself.
Further, the sheep embryo does not start to depend on its own genes until the 16-cell stage, four cell divisions after fertilisation. In contrast, the mouse embryo gets off to a very quick start, becoming reliant on the activity of its own genes after just the first division when the fertilised egg becomes two cells. The human embryo is thought to rely on its own genes after three cell divisions, when it comprises eight cells. So, going by the nature of the reprogramming in each species, cloning mice and humans is difficult to sustain.
Unfortunately, the judiciary too hasn't been found informed while deliberating on medical ethics. Take the recent Ghosh vs Ghosh divorce case in the Supreme Court for instance. The apex court, in its March 26 verdict, said, "if a husband submits himself for an operation of sterilisation without medical reasons and without the consent or knowledge of his wife and similarly if the wife undergoes vasectomy (read tubectomy) or abortion without medical reason or without the consent or knowledge of her husband, such an act of the spouse may lead to mental cruelty."
The error corrected in the parentheses couldn't have been a typo. The judge should have known that the term "vasectomy" is derived from vas deferens, the sperm-carrying ducts that connect a man's testicles to the penis, which is snapped by surgical means. So how on earth can a woman have vasectomy?
This glaringly flawed entry in its ruling apart, the court also ruled that a refusal to have sex with one's spouse and a unilateral decision to not have a child would also amount to mental cruelty. This ruling overlooks the fact that insistence on the consent of the spouse often prevents a woman from accessing safe abortion or sterilisation. In a study among rural women by Gupte et al, women said that the most important criterion in abortion services was that the husband's permission not be insisted upon. In a study on sterilisation services in Chennai, it was found that "informed consent" is akin to ignoring the woman herself.
It is impossible to fight the progress of science either towards genesis or nemesis, and foolhardy to thwart an individual's freedom. So let scientists fight scientists and information fight information.