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Sepoys View Mengele's Stem Cells

huh? a prediction of unintended consequences brought on by inattention

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 25, 2005.

I want to talk about stem cell research, and the only possible way to do this is to start with the introduction of the Enfield rifle to the military arm of the East India Company in the subcontinent in the 1850’s.

The projectile for the rifle was part of a self-contained paper cartridge with both ball and powder. It required only the end to be bitten off and the cartridge then rammed down the muzzle of the weapon. The cartridge was greased with animal fat to make it easier. The soldiers passed on the rumor that the grease was a mixture of fat from both cow (sacred to Hindus) and pig (abhorrent to Moslems). Biting such a cartridge would break the caste of the Hindu soldiers and defile Muslims. It’s still unclear whether the rumor was true, and England made a big deal about guaranteeing the fat to be cow and pig free, but the trust was broken and nobody believed them. This resulted in the Sepoy Mutiny, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and England taking India from the Company in a festival of unintended consequences leading to two nuclear powers threatening each other with war today.

The Enfield was a huge advance for the time, but the arrogant and sloppy manner in which this was handled killed thousands and left India and England holding each other in contempt.

You may recall, in the not so distant past, that there was a huge argument about whether any knowledge obtained by the Nazis from their work on human prisoners should be utilized if they proved actually useful. This meant that if Joseph Mengele had stumbled upon some valuable information while making emaciated Jews swim in freezing water, or in his studies happened upon some beneficial negation of pain, was it fair that others should benefit? Through the centuries much knowledge and malarkey was obtained from the torture of prisoners, both civil and military, with their vivisections, their excruciating deaths noted in some detail by trained observers.

Would you accept treatment derived from Mengele’s experiments? And in so doing, would this validate his work, and justify his tortures and the Nazi regime? How about for your six month old child? We’re not even sure these were actual medical experiments at all, or merely sadistic torture under the guise of medicine to no possible purpose. But I’ve also heard that things have been learned from Mengele’s horrors that have already been applied for decades in treating wounds and trauma. Did this validate Mengele? Or the lives of the deceased he practiced on? Or neither. Knowledge is just knowledge. Is this mere handy justification for an atrocity?

Everyone can be grateful stem cell research wasn’t available to the Nazis. A political group of amateur monsters interested in a Master Race – which it’s still fun to point out would have admitted none of the Nazi leaders – would undoubtedly have puttered along worst case scenario paths that virtually everyone is scared to consider. We are now being offered a selection of paths to take, in a yellow wood, all of which or none of which might end up as the Nazis would have.

Stem cells are those obtained from very early human conception, when we’re just a bunch of cells practicing division. Any cell can become anything at that point, because there aren’t enough of them for a group vote on chores, so they’re very handy for research. Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s, a hundred other diseases could be avoided if not cured with applied research utilizing these cells. But many people today think that this invisible clump of cells is a human being, and torturing it with experimentation is no different than Mengele at Auschwitz.

In its traditional pandering manner to the Christian right, the House of Representatives had previously banned stem cell research except for lines already established. The House yesterday voted to loosen these restraints by increased funding, but not by a wide enough margin to overcome President Bush’s guaranteed veto. Now, swept up by tearful Congressional tales of Mother and her Alzheimer’s, some GOP members advocate increased experimentation, but negating human cloning. In other words, they want the medical benefits for themselves and their constituents but not the responsibility if things go wrong. Sorta like the East India Company, or perhaps genetically altered food. ‘A mistake? Don’t know how this happened.’

For many years, it was thought that you became a human being when you took your first breath, because at his first breath, Adam became a human soul. Now, the same institutions consider human life begins when the pollywog punctures the outer wall of the egg. If you’re against the use of stem cells, fine. But you should have to sign a contract that says you will obtain no benefit from the research, and you would deny medical treatment to your children, spouse, or self based upon them. You can’t have it both ways. It’s hypocritical.

And if you’re for the research, you have to step up and be prepared to accept the responsibility when the inevitable horrors arrive. Because the South Koreans recently announced they’re well along the path we’re avoiding in stem cell research, and others are hard at work. But nobody is willing to do that. The choices are too important and dangerous and we flinch at them like we do at photos of Auschwitz.