Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
I previously blogged on the question “how much freedom of inquiry is too much?“, specifically regarding controversial or outrageous policy proposals by respected scholars. Dr. Autumn Fiester of the UPenn Center for Bioethics approaches the same question from the perspective of outrageous or frivolous research. She particularly notes the development of a genetically-engineered pig clone containing an enzyme that converts omega-6 fatty acid to the more healthy omega-3, arguing that this is a pure waste of money:
First: the omega-3 pig represents the worst type of “research waste:” precious scientific resources of time, mental energy, and money that could be used to tackle serious human and environmental threats are being devoted to frivolous causes. The list of devastating problems begging for a scientific solution include: chronic, genetic, and infectious diseases, famine, food and water safety, global warming, the destruction of ecosystems – the list goes on and on…
Second: the one problem we don’t have is a shortage of omega-3. Not only is it found naturally in readily available foods like walnuts and fish, but it can be found in supplements and nutritionally supplemented foods like Smart Balance Peanut Butter. We certainly do have a very serious problem of obesity and nutrition in this country, but neither are problems science needs to solve. We are fat because we eat too much, and we are unhealthy because we choose to eat the wrong foods. . . . Offering us genetically modified pork to provide us with a plentiful nutrient is an obvious attempt to drum up a need that justifies the science.
Here I think she’s wrong. There are purported scientific benefits from this project that she does not address. One of the project report co-authors says:
The research’s prime aim is to gain a better understanding of cardiac function, where hog and human are strikingly similar, the team reports on Sunday in the specialist journal Nature Biotechnology.
“We would use these animals as a model to see what happens to heart health if we increase the omega-3 levels in the body. It could allow us to see how that helps cardiovascular function,” said co-author Randy Prather, a specialist of the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Given that the animals are experimental — not to say extraordinarily expensive — no one knows what their meat tastes like, whether it is safe to eat and whether the piglets will retain high levels of omega-3 when they reach adulthood.
If, eventually, the transgenic hogs go to market, there could be double benefits, argued Prather.
“First, the pigs could have better cardiovascular function and therefore live longer, which would limit livestock loss for farmers. Second, they could be healthier animals for human consumption.”
This both strengthens and weakens Fiester’s argument. The cardiac link is important, and explains the use of the pig model. (It would otherwise seem ironic to the point of perversity to engineer omega-3 fatty acid into the world’s finest source of cholesterol. Instead of engineering pork to carry omega-3, you could probably gain a net cardiac benefit by simply not eating the pork in the first place.) Whether this will lead to useful research is hard to say, but it does not sound like the work is frivolous on its face, or an attempt to “drum up a need”. On the other hand, parts of this explanation do sound somewhat questionable. It is not obvious why studying the effect of omega-3 in the body is best accomplished by genetically engineering those bodies to make omega-3; unless they are planning to genetically engineer humans in the same way, it would seem more directly relevant (and vastly easier and cheaper) to simply feed the pigs omega-3, the same way humans get it. And the speculative remarks about potentially marketing the pigs’ meat do raise the question what the real motivation was for this project. But all in all, this seems to me to be a familiar case of someone attacking science as “frivolous” on grounds that they simply don’t understand or value it (a behavior I hereby name Proxmire’s Syndrome).
Her more general argument is better, however. It is that there are some kinds of science that simply should not be done, either because they waste resources, as above, or because they are offensive or insensitive to social values.
[O]mega-3 pork requires extensive research on animals. At a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about the general use of animals in scientific research, the animal biotechnology industry needs to limit its work to projects necessary for the achievement of important health, safety, or medical goals. There are surely worthy goals to pursue in biotech agriculture, but this isn’t one of them. The concern about animal welfare issues is exacerbated in this case by the widespread unease with conventional husbandry practices for this species: pig farming is one of the most highly criticized areas in the ag sector. Let’s adopt universal humane farming practices for this intelligent species before we make animal welfare matters worse for the pig.
Finally, and for many people, most worrisome: There is something profoundly amiss in our unreflective stampede down the biotech path. We are now able to alter sentient life radically and rapidly by directly manipulating a living being’s genome. The level of the change now possible, the speed at which we can make these dramatic alterations, and the potential consequences for animals, the environment, and ourselves – for the world as we know it – ought to give us great pause. We need to ask fundamental questions: who are we becoming, and how are we changing the world we inhabit? It is naïve to think that this research, unbridled, will have only a trivial impact. Will we still recognize ourselves or our world if we stay on this path, if we allow any and all modification of animal life for any and all reasons? This latest work already says a great deal about us, not all of it flattering. One scientist commented about the omega-3 pig: “People can continue to eat their junk food. You won’t have to change your diet, but you will be getting what you need.” We are altering the genome of animal to enable Americans to continue in their reckless, self-destructive ways. What kind of people are we that this seems reason enough to manipulate sentient life?
Again, there are quibbles to be raised with this analysis: Whether fish-fat-pork is a “worthy goal” depends on the issues previously addressed – its usefulness as a research model; the true motivation for the work – on which Fiester has not made a completely convincing argument; it is not obviously true that the project is not “worthy”. Also, the objections to pig ranching have largely to do with its environmental impact (the vast amounts of manure produced, and the ammoniacal sewage “lagoons” on factory-style ranches); pig ranches are far from the worst offenders in terms of the impact on the animals themselves, who are, most of them, happy as pigs in shit and for a good reason. And it seems like changing the subject to say we should “adopt universal humane farming practices”; Fiester offers no explanation what research, if any, she would allow on animals raised under current practices or what makes “humane farming” more important than, say, cardiac research. She also conflates commercial farming with the raising of research stock, which are completely separate and hugely different enterprises; animals for research are bred under much more congenial conditions than farm animals to avoid infection or other contamination that would threaten the research (and hence the value of the animals). Conditions on “factory farms” simply have nothing to do with conditions in lab specimen supply operations, and Fiester’s treatment of them as the same practice suggests either a bias in her argument or an important oversight.
Her basic line of thought is worth considering, however. Fiester is concerned that some kinds of research are simply not worth the candle because their goals or expected results do not justify the burdens they impose in terms of (public) funding, diversion of resources from other projects, impact on animals used in the research, and possibly the violation of social mores or important human values. Ignoring particular points about the example she chooses, in general no one would disagree with her. In fact, the argument is a familiar one, and it invokes a familiar response: “pure” research is necessary even if its eventual usefulness is hard to predict, because it is the only way to lay the scientific groundwork for “applied” research aimed at particular useful projects, and scientists themselves must be allowed to set their own research agendas because only they can judge what lines of investigation may be fruitful, and in any even only they can do the research, so constraining their interests or avenues of investigation is counterproductive. These points are both largely true, so how do we decide where to invest our research resources?
One way not to do so is by means of the intuitive approach Fiester takes toward the omega-3 pig, or in her last paragraph regarding “our unreflective stampede” toward bioethics. This Leon Kass-like emotionalism carries no argumentative punch. “What kind of people are we that [our reckless, self-indulgent lifestyle] seems reason enough to manipulate sentient life?” Well, I guess we’re the kind of people who value ourselves more than we value animals – which is neither surprising nor obviously wrong. If we can raise animals to eat, why can’t we raise them with somewhat healthier flesh and then eat ‘em? Fiester objects to factory farming, but not to the extent of calling for vegetarianism; she does, however, think that the omega-3 clones are a pig too far. We cannot pursue that avenue, at least until we convert our farms to “humane” standards. It appears, then, that it is the genetic engineering that she objects too, not the farming practices – but she then invokes bad farming practices as a barrier to the genetic engineering. This is simple misdirection, putting a widespread concern for the abuses of factory farming to the service of her own idiosyncratic reaction to the horror she perceives in genetic engineering. Whether or not engineering pigs is a good idea, there is nothing self-evidently obvious about that practice that makes it a clearer indictment of human nature than our many other peccadilloes – among them, that we are too fat and that we raise non-genetically-engineered animals for food under appalling conditions, both of which she criticizes but does not regard as, in themselves, morally unjustifiable. Her repeated emphasis on “who we are becoming”, “what this [research] says about us”, and “what kind of people we are” invoke emotional or value-laden reactions that seem at odds with the crisper cost-benefit analysis she attempts in the omega-3 pig case.
Fiester’s remarks seem to me very much of a piece with right-wing reactions to much science and science-based policy today – embodying a sense that certain avenues of science or technology should be shut down in their entirety not because they portend clear and harmful consequences, but simply because somebody claims to be offended by them. (The new Puritanism may be defined as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is discovering an inconvenient scientific fact.) The nebulousness of these fears – “what kind of people are we?”, “what does it say about us?” – is only one weakness of this argument. Certainly we must make careful decisions where to invest our research resources, and certainly we should not pursue developments that would be harmful. But to make either of those decisions requires that we have firm grounds for evaluating the work we consider doing, and some understanding of the harm it may cause other than queasiness on the part of those predisposed to queasiness. Fiester’s opening arguments are not irrational on their face, but neither are they very strong. Her closing remarks betray simple distaste rather than a considered analysis of the situation. It is her prerogative to find oily pork distasteful, but it is not her prerogative – nor Leon Kass’s, nor Daniel Callahan’s, nor Bill Frist’s, nor George Bush’s – to impose that personal reaction as policy. For that we need a cooler and more considered public dialogue.
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