Some thoughts on life, death, and stem cells

I know. I know.

Scientists are not supposed to publicly talk about the question of when life begins and about death, but these are kind of important things to talk about and think about, don’t you think?

I do.

So here goes….

It’s been a very intense, crazy few weeks for me and for many others too.

It’s been the kind of time that makes you think about things from a bigger view.

A lot of death and loss in the last few weeks.

A colleague, Simon Chan, who was a bright star of a scientist and person passed away.

Two others more indirectly connected to me died all within a few days.

Neil Armstrong, a true national and I believe global hero, just died.

We also in effect had the “death” of legend in Lance Armstrong giving up his fight against doping charges. Very sad. Especially as he was a hero and inspiration to so many people including those with cancer.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of death and other kinds of loss happen at once.

Sometimes when people I know die or the topic of death comes up, I also get an echo of how it felt right after my dad died about 3 years ago. Then within months of that I had my own intense taste of mortality being diagnosed with a very serious form of prostate cancer followed one month later by surgery.

Seeing and feeling death and loss in our immediate world can be depressing, but it can also illustrate the precious nature of the time we are each given.

I think to myself “do something positive with the time you have”. Honor the memories of those we have lost with our positive actions. They would not want us to suffer in their memory, but celebrate them by making the most of life.

Friday we also had a federal court ruling upholding the legality of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a case that is deeply enmeshed with core questions of life including when it begins…

I have many friends who are religious.

Interestingly, these friends have a wide range of opinions about stem cell research. I value these friends and respect them no matter what their opinion is on stem cell research.

Even so I find it notable and encouraging to me as a stem cell scientist that many of the most religious people (several who are Catholics) I know support stem cell research.

How is this possible?

Their reasons are diverse.

Some support adult stem cell research, but not embryonic. That’s not my view, but I respect them. I want to also stress what a big fan I am of adult stem cell research.

Some friends support both types of stem cell research.

Of these folks, most say that the reason for their support including embryonic stem cell research is that they simply do not believe life begins at fertilization/conception. One such friend said to me that “1 cell or even a bigger, but microscopic sphere of 50 or 100 cells is just not a human for me. Not even close.”

Others have told me they believe the process of making a human life begins at fertilization, but that that life does not become an actual human being, a person, until much later. I have to admit this view strikes me as interesting, separating a person from the process that can lead to the making of that person…I never thought of it myself.

Still others are not sure when human life begins, but believe that the frozen leftover, few day old embryos from IVF procedures (which are what can be used to make embryonic stem cell lines) should not simply be thrown away so they think it makes sense for them to contribute to something positive via embryonic stem cell research. One in this group said to me “Otherwise we have to criminalize IVF…and is anyone willing to do that?” That seems unlikely to put it mildly.

Some lean toward the view that the defining moment is when a fetus can survive outside the womb…however even that is somehow not a satisfactory definition for me. It is too nebulous somehow.

Frankly, I’m not so sure when during development you get to that moment when you have an actual human being.

I do know that for myself, personally, it is not at conception or even during the first trimester. This is not a fact, but simply my own view.

On the other hand, I also believe it is not when a baby is born, because for me that seems too late. Even so, for many religions and cultures and legal system around the world, the moment of birth is in fact, however, the defining moment.

For me, the key moment is somewhere in between the end of the first trimester and actual birth.

So you might say to me somewhat skeptically, “Gee, Paul, that sure narrows it down!”

Yeah, yeah. I know it is a wide range. For a more detailed essay on issues related to when life may begin please see my Science 2.0 post, “I confess: I don’t know when life begins”.

The other possibility is that we simply cannot know when the life of a human being begins. I certainly believe that science has not and cannot prove the answer to this important question.

Maybe there is no one right answer.

Another interesting question is “When does a human life end?” Traditionally, for thousands of years, death has been defined as the moment when a person stops breathing and/or when their heart stops beating. More recently we have had the concept of “brain dead”, in which characteristically human organized brain activity is gone. Interestingly, these definitions of death are hard to even tangentially link to the idea of life beginning at conception since a fertilized egg and even a few day older embryo used to make embryonic stem cells of course have no heart, no lungs, and no brain.

These are all tough questions and I don’t claim to have some kind of universal answers that I’m trying to force other people to believe. But I do think these are questions that are critical for us all to think about and openly talked about as they are integral to the human experience.