Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, December 29, 2008


Can somebody who knows about these things please explain to me (or, better, send me someplace sensible where I can discover for myself) what, if anything, I'm missing that John Howard is seeing in this Kaguya example he keeps going on about? As far as I know, Kaguya is the name of a mouse who was born in 2004 via something like parthenogenesis, an experimental method that has not now nor is apt to have any time soon much in the way of actual application to human beings at all. That is to say, nobody but technophilic or technophobic handwavers are devoting much time to the contemplation of human trials of such a technique, as I understand this. I don't even know how fruitful this specific line of research been taken to be for mice, since, after all, I don't think I've heard anything about it in years, since a few breathless sketchy geek-outs in the glossies years and years back in fact.

Certainly, as it stands, this is not a procedure that is even remotely ready for prime time, and I've never heard of anybody who said otherwise who wasn't an obvious fraud or abject fool. Then again I haven't heard anybody talk about it at all, until now, for almost half a decade, and maybe research in this area is heating up again or something? I have to say that my impression, as is usually the case in matters like these, is that those who are discerning dire threats or making breathless promises connected to this technique seem in the main either to be futurological charlatans preying on the hopes of underinformed people or reactionary luddites whomping up panic in different underinformed people, both very much in the service of little but their own ideological agendas.

Just as I (and every single sensible person I know) oppose actually available "reproductive cloning" techniques as completely unsafe for humans at present, and deem them rightly illegal as things stand, so too should any human recourse to the parthenogenetic technique that produced this mouse be opposed, unless spectacular strides have been made that I don't know about. Needless to say, opposition certainly doesn't translate for me into the coveted bioconservative blanket pre-emptive prohibitions in perpetuity of any research or development or eventually emerging safe and wanted reproductive cloning technique or reproductive parthenogenesis technique medical science might manage to come up with who knows when.

John Howard sputters about the legality of these techniques, but that doesn't seem entirely right to me. Again, I'm not offering declarations but asking for good sources of education in an area where I frankly lack expertise. But aren't there actually quite dire consequences that would follow from the abuse of humans recklessly participating in such techniques deemed unready and unsafe by scientific consensus? It seems to me that Howard is painting an enormously misleading picture here. Now, I'm not exactly a naif, you know: Of course, one can argue about the drawing of lines and the meting out of penalties and the pernicious pressure of money and force in propertized for-profit research models and failed states and so on, but Howard's insinuation that laissez-faire prevails in the North Atlantic medical community is not at all correct, is it? My understanding is that there are indeed laws prohibiting human reproductive cloning so long as it remains, as it is at present, unsafe. It may be true that there is no law banning clone armies and gengineered centaurs and designer superbabies in perpetuity, but surely this is rather for the same reason that there are no laws specifically banning warp drive engines and tornado machines. (For all I know, quite to the contrary of the spirit of Howard's fulminations, there may indeed be laws banning all of these things out there, since, if anything, I tend to find lawmakers a bit ban-happy in the therapy department, much preferring a strong regulation, oversight, and access model in the service of consensual self-determination myself.) My understanding is that researchers who cross this line into misinformation, fraud, recklessness, duress, and abuse lose their licenses, their funding, their liberty, and who knows what else. Could somebody (Martin?) direct me to sensible information on this topic?

Actually, I am far from implying that the regulatory schemes in play are adequate. Neoliberal developmentalism and secretive intellectual property regimes render misinformation too ubiquitous for comfort, genomic enclosure, biopiracy, duressed experimentation and organ trafficking among the planetary precariat render genuflections to "consent" all too pro-forma far too much of the time. Radical reforms, (re-)regulations, public subsidizations and oversight, consensualization and democratization are urgently needed. I am not saying anything in saying this that reasonably well-informed democratic-minded people don't already agree is perfectly obvious and even commonplace as sentiments go, but my problem with John Howard types is that these problems and complexities provide no grounds that I can see to go from the urgent need for regulation and oversight and access-to-knowledge to render medical practice safer, fairer, and more consensual instead to pronouncing sweeping pre-emptive bans in perpetuity on any safer more fruitful techniques along these lines that might eventuate from research in years to come, all in the service of whatever fetishization of the natural or customary state of affairs they happen to parochially prefer to consensual self-determination among the diversity of their peers. I mean, democratic-minded people should certainly want to argue about the ethics of nonhuman animal testing, the regulations that should prevail eventually over human trials, and so on, but this really doesn't seem to be what bioconservatives like John Howard are after at all.

I certainly am not qualified to make any predictions as to whether or when techniques like reproductive cloning or reproductive parthenogenesis might become safe enough to warrant access as part of the package of ARTs included in universal basic healthcare provision (which, as I have said, I strongly advocate), but you can be sure if and when the techniques are safe according to a consensus of scientific judgment and consented to by competent, well-informed citizens without duress who want them, then I'll champion both the techniques and celebrate the citizens who make recourse to them.


John Howard said...

Excellent post, Dale! I look forward to some thoughtful responses on your questions, I hope people resist the urge to be glib or sarcastic and really weigh in.

One thing I need to point out in the meantime: though it's true I advocate that the full value and benefits of the ban would only be realized if it was understood that the ban was going to be forever, and people were always going to be made from the union of a man and a woman's unmodified genes, it should be obvious to everyone that no law could ever be "in perpetuity", all laws are subject to change.

I repeatedly point out that same-sex Civil Unions would become marriages if we revoked the ban on same-sex conception. Same-sex conception can be allowed as easily as it can be banned. But until then, we shouldn't have any marriages that are not fully approved to attempt to conceive children together at any time they want to try. If any marriages are told that it is not safe enough to procreate right now, and they will have to wait for a consensus of scientists to say when it's safe to attempt to combine their genes, then we have lost a major civil right.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity: you say that you oppose human cloning for reproductive purposes. What is your opinion on therapeutic cloning in the case, say, of creating a new human bladder that has zero chance of rejection (I propose a bladder because this procedure has already been demonstrated successfully in dogs)?

Also, this is just nitpicking, but tornado machines have been constructed. They're certainly scaled down versions of the real thing, but they are bona fide tornadoes (I'm too lazy to find the link right now; if you want I'm sure I could dig it up somewhere).


Dale Carrico said...

you say that you oppose human cloning for reproductive purposes. What is your opinion on therapeutic cloning

Actually, that isn't what I said, is it? I said I oppose reproductive cloning techniques for humans so long as these are not safe. I have no problem with reproductive cloning in principle, I have a problem with any medical therapy that is unsafe according to the prevailing scientific consensus or that is applied under conditions of misinformation or duress.

Again, I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination (my interests and training are in political and rhetorical theory, and especially the politics of permaculture and p2p formations understood through the lens of theorists like Arendt, Butler, Haraway, and Fanon -- which means I am probably not the best person to ask if you're looking for very particular assessments of the biomedical state of the art), however, my understanding is that therapeutic cloning techniques are bearing more fruit by far than reproductive cloning techniques up to the present, and seem in many cases to be safe enough to represent viable therapeutic pathways. You mention that dogs have been treated with cloned bladders, but if I'm not mistaken there has been some success with humans already on this score as well? Needless to say, I approve of therapuetic cloning techniques that are safe and consented to by competent well-informed non-duressed citizens, and disapprove of therapeutic cloning techniques that are unsafe, forced, or consented to under coniditions of fraud, misinformation, or duress. That's where the rubber hits the road.

As for tornado machines -- should city-destroying mad-scientist weather devices of any kind be devised, you can be sure that I believe that the US and other legitimate democracies should sign a multilateral nonproliferation treaty to halt their creation, and should fund an international body to track and monitor the materials that render their construction possible to ensure that we are well prepared to restrain or at worst cope with their appearance or use, like we should other wmds. I know you were making your point in jest, but, once again, I think the relevant principles are fairly clear, and I think the hyperbolizing tendencies of both technophilic and technophobic futurists derange much more than they clarify the problems at hand, such as they are.

Dale Carrico said...

If any marriages are told that it is not safe enough to procreate right now, and they will have to wait for a consensus of scientists to say when it's safe to attempt to combine their genes, then we have lost a major civil right.

Nonsense. There are loads of married heterosexual couples, for example, who are not in a position to reproduce without making recourse to ARTs that for one reason or another create complications that render them nonviable in their particular case and hence unavailable. Heterosexual marriage is no more threatened by the sound practice of medicine than by the participation of samesex citizens in the institution. You seem to me to have, frankly, a surreally monomaniacal preoccupation with procreation.

John Howard said...

A right is not an ability. Blocking access to some ART like IVF does not prohibit a het marriage from any and all ways to attempt to create a child together, as same-sex couples should be prohibited. It might mean they never do have children, but that's OK, there's no guarantee that everyone successfully procreates.

I do think there is a right to attempt to get healthy and a right to medical privacy that protects an individual's right to try to be fertile and succeed at procreating, but I don't think that obligates society to attend to the plight of the infertile, as we are obligated to attend to the sick and hungry.

On the other hand, I think society is obligated to protect fertility, from cell phones and wifi laptops that might be rendering people infertile as we speak. (eek! oh well.)

Dale Carrico said...

Blocking access to some ART like IVF does not prohibit a het marriage from any and all ways to attempt to create a child together... protects an individual's right to try to be fertile and succeed at procreating... plight of the infertile... society is obligated to protect fertility... cell phones and wifi laptops that might be rendering people infertile as we speak. (eek!...)...

Dude, you are seriously obsessed and at this point you're creeping me out. Please go away for a little while now.

John Howard said...

Procreation-phobic, are you? Sceered?

That comment was very non-obsessed about infertile people, pointing out that its OK if people can't have children, there's no right to succeed, etc. My "eek" was honest, as I don't want to be rendered infertile by this laptop, but rest assured I'm not hung-up on it and if I can't have kids that's fine with me.

I'll go away for a while but might respond if people require a response with any comments on this thread. I hope someone is out there to explain to us what would happen if a stem-cell lab or fertility doctor like Dr. Richard Scott attempted same-sex conception or cloning.

Dale Carrico said...


Dale Carrico said...

I'll go away for a while but might respond if people require a response

I think you fail to grasp what I was saying to you in my recommendation that you begin a cooling off period. Let me spell it out: get the crazy under control or I'll moderate your comments out of existence.

Martin said...

A bit late in my response. You made a lot of points and asked a lot of questions, but I think the main points are:

1) That paper was published 5 years ago. Don't know why John Howard is making a big deal about it now.

2) There are no laws against parthenogenesis specifically that I know of, unless that's covered in a broadly sweeping clause within legislation on cloning.

3) This particular technique uses genetic engineering of the oocytes (adding artificial chromosomes), which is probably banned on non-consenting human subjects.

4) This technique is far, far from feasible in human subjects, which is probably why the relevant regulatory bodies have not jumped to address it (I assure you they know about it).

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks, Martin!