July 20, 2006

The logical labyrinth of the stem cell veto

Embryonic development, when it proceeds inside the uterus, is usually divided into 23 specific stages and occurs during the first 8 weeks following fertilization. Stem cell research, as envisioned by the Senate's just-vetoed Enhancement Act, does not use embryos developed within the human uterus; rather, such research employs embryos which have developed outside the uterus in a nutritive medium to about Stage 4, where mitosis (cell division) is arrested by freezing and held in cryonic suspension indefinitely. At the point of freezing, the embryo has developed to a blastocyst comprised of about 100 cells, is smaller than a millimeter, and has no discernible human shape or characterstics.

There are currently about 400,000 blastocysts sitting in freezers in fertility clinics around the United States. Fertility treatment tends toward redundancy wherever possible, since in vitro fertilization is inherently more problematic than the natural human thing. Couples seeking a child through such techniques often create more embryos than they ever intend to implant, and fertility specialists pick and choose among the embryos created to select the best cell clumps (morphologically and otherwise) for implantation. Most of the embryos will never be implanted, and will ultimately be thrown away.

President Bush has, in a relatively straightforward manner, equated the deliberate destruction of IVF embryos with murder and the killing of innocent life. This is his rationale for vetoing the Enhancement Act; to sign the bill, in his view, is to offer federal financing for murder of the innocent. While he concedes research using embryonic stem cell lines offers promise, the moral equation is such that the bill must be vetoed. Bush pointed out in his tele-op conference, surrounded by "snowflake" babies, that his veto does not mean embryonic stem cell research cannot proceed through private funding or through state programs, such as those currently in California and Massachusetts.

This is a curious acquiescence, under the circumstances. If Bush is going to go so far as to equate the destruction of human embryos for research with homicide, then how can he rest his case with a simple veto of the Senate bill, denying federal funding for research? If it's murder, it's murder, and his oath of office includes his promise to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States, which Bush quoted at his tele-veto conference. One of the "unalienable" rights is the right to life, which may not be taken without due process of law. While Bush was actually quoting the Declaration of Independence, you get the idea. All 50 states and the federal government have criminal laws against homicide, and Bush is sworn to enforce those laws.

So we find ourselves in a logical labyrinth, where the Swimmer always likes to splash around (excusing the mixed metaphors). Consider the following direct consequences of regarding the destruction of cell clumps as murder:

1. Why should a couple ever be allowed to "abandon" or consent to the destruction (by thawing, for example) of any currently-frozen embryo? Why isn't this, at the very least, conspiracy to commit murder?

2. If an arsonist burns down a building which happens to contain a fertility clinic housing 5,000 frozen blastocysts, hasn't the arsonist committed mass murder on a scale comparable to the 9-11 plotters?

3. If a maintenance company responsible for servicing the embryo freezer at a clinic negligently does its work, resulting in the unintentional thawing and killing of 5,000 embryos, would the employees involved be guilty of 5,000 counts of involuntary manslaughter?

4. Why would anyone in his right mind run a fertility clinic, given the heavy criminal consequences of any kind of screw-up?

Much more branching paradox can be found within Bush's Labyrinth. Focus on the idea that the destruction of a 100-cell blastocyst is the same as shooting down a grown man in cold blood, and the examples will come to you. It will also suggest the arbitrariness of investing an embryo with a soul only after fertilization. Why wait so long? The embryo, after all, resulted from penetration of an ovum by a sperm cell. Certainly the raw material of the soul must have been present in each of these component parts before fertilization and mitosis began. These arguments have all been anticipated in the abortion debate, of course. But in my memory, Bush's statements yesterday were the first time a President actually used the term "killing of innocent life" to describe the destruction of an embryo outside the human body. It's a new frontier, a new premise, an expansion and deepening of the invasion of essentially religious ideas into American life.

Not that any of this ever occurs to Bush. He just says stuff and moves on, leaving the serious thinkers capable of extrapolation to wonder just how nuts it will all get before he's through.

July 18, 2006

As the Four Horses Round the Clubhouse Turn and Head Down the Backstretch

Behold a Pale Horse, the Death Pony,
by a neck over War, the White Horse, but in the money
we got yer Pestilence and Famine, bringing up the rear,
but Famine should do well after War, Pestilence and Death work their Satanic magic.
Pestilence the Bird Flu, esp. the Second Wave,
and War we have in abundance, all over the globe now,
but especially where the world's billion Muslims pay the most attention,
and George, and Dick, and Rummy, here's what the Track Touts are sayin,
down at the Armageddon OTC,
even an army full of Farsi-spoutin' Mr. T's, I pity the mullah, won't be enough,
esp. after the unholy distribution network of Pakistan's Nuke Wal-Mart
run by A.Q. Khan (The Night Manager) gets into full swing,
and the Millenialists square off against the Virgin Seekers with bristlin' thermonukes,
and those who, unlike Bo Belinsky, that Original Angel,
who found Paradise right here in the chicks spilled like lazy hour glasses along the beach in SoCal,
absolutely must destroy this world in order to bring on the hallucinatory Next One,
will finish us off perhaps before Heat Death can do the trick,
and the pity is, of course, that as dissolute as Bo Belinsky may have seemed,
he represented the preservation of Order in the Universe,
of holding things together through peace, harmony and diversified sex,
whereas the Apocalyptics have the massive teleological advantage of Entropy working for them,
the raving madness that moves all order in the Universe
toward a finished condition of stasis, powerlessness and dispersion,
and they just can't wait to get there.

Terrorism By The Numbers

Assuming that only Islamic Fundamentalists are potential terrorists (and this is a false assumption), a reasonable calculation of the resource pool from which such terrorists might be drawn can be undertaken mathematically as follows.

While disputes exist concerning the total number of Muslims in the world, a round figure often accepted is 1.2 billion. Muslims currently comprise about 22% of the world's population. Since Islam tends to be concentrated, as a majority population, in underdeveloped or poor regions of the world where population growth is higher, the growth rate among Muslims is higher than in Western countries. As a result of this disparity (about 2.2% annual growth versus 2.9% for Muslims), Muslims will comprise approximately 30% of the world's population by the year 2020.

Muslim populations tend to be younger than in the Western countries; for example, in Algeria half the population is under 20, and this is common among all densely populated Muslim areas, such as Iran and Indonesia. Assuming that terror activists tend to be younger rather than older, the cohort "bubble" moving through the population would naturally swell during the next 2 decades or so.

Taking the present numbers (1.2 billion) and assuming that half the population is male (600 million), and assuming that currently one-third of all such males are age-appropriate for terror activism (200 million), and further assuming that only 1% of such males are inclined to act out terroristic tendencies, we have a group of approximately 2 million Muslim young men who might engage in terrorism against the West or within the Muslim world. Further, since the population pressures in the Muslim world are increasing and tilting toward the younger end of the population distribution curve, one would expect the numbers to increase, even holding steady the very conservative 1% guess, especially since this figure is apt to rise as poverty in the Muslim world increases with larger populations and the relative disparity in wealth in West/Asia versus the Muslim world also widens.

Therefore, the "war on terrorism," while useful as a shibboleth or for domestic political purposes in the West, is completely hopeless. Such a conclusion is given enhanced inevitability by noting that nuclear bombs are now proliferating among "rogue" nations, including Pakistan and North Korea, and that nuclear know-how is diffuse among Muslim scientists in former republics of the disbanded U.S.S.R. If the West uses a single instance of a nuclear explosion in the West as the result of terrorist activity as a kind of Rubicon noting the end of civilized life anywhere (which it very well might be), then it seems appropriate to say that such Civilized Life has an expiration date printed on the gable spout of this particular quart of milk in world history, and that date is not very far off.

Therefore, in Game Theory, a different approach is clearly called for. Under an analysis where "realistic" approaches, such as the War on Terror and Getting Tough in general are seen to lead to the inevitable end of Civilized Life, as the above analysis suggests, then ANY approach which offers a promise of sustaining civilized life is by definition more "realistic" and productive. Such an approach has already been described.

Sing the words to John Lennon's "Imagine," take them to heart, and live by them.