Just Another Effin' Observer

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Location: Huntsville, Texas, United States

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Brave New World of Kim Possible

I’m going to admit something in a public forum that most people would never own up to, even on the Jerry Springer Show: I am a forty-something-year-old Disney Channel junkie.

My favorite Disney show, hands-down, bar none and running away, is Kim Possible. I make it a point never to miss an episode. (I sort of have a “thing” for Shego – I just luv a “bad girl”! And she is the definitive tasty babe with attitude. So what if she's nothing more than paint and plastic; you've just described half the population of Southern California.) And did you know that there actually is such an animal as a naked mole rat? I had always thought that was just a tweak on "mall-rats", presumably the show's target demographic. Live and learn.

A recent episode was particularly topical, in that the storyline involved Dr. Drakken setting out to create an army of genetically-modified, chaotic-evil (Dungeons & Dragons® afficionados will know what I’m talking about) clones of Kim Possible, whom he can send out to do his evil bidding; the idea of using copies of his arch-nemesis to further his plan for world-domination was just too delicious to resist. Fortunately (or unfortunately -- it all depends on whom you're rooting for in this grudge match), Drakken took a few short-cuts (what can we say -- he's a cheapskate), and the clones he ended up producing were unstable, requiring nothing more than a healthy spritz of grape Nehi® to cause them to decompose into a puddle of bright green gunk. (I may be wrong about the grape Nehi®, but the stuff coming out of that soda-fountain spritzer was purple and carbonated; it's a reasonable conclusion, based on the available evidence.)

I seriously doubt that the show was intended as a morality tale, but it was nonetheless instructive.

The whole issue of cloning has been around for years, and has been the subject of many serious bioethical debates, not to mention some astoundingly crappy sci-fi/horror movies, ever since Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World was published in 1932 and, in a more obscure fashion, even before. The first successful experiments in cloning date as far back as 1963.

The topicality of that episode of Kim Possible stems from current goings-on in the Hallowed Halls of Congress: two pieces of legislation, both authorizing federal funding for various types of stem-cell research, have passed the House and are headed for the Senate. One of them, the so-called Castle bill, named for one of its principal sponsors, Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), faces a promised Presidential veto if it makes it to the Oval Office, because this bill proposes to authorize and fund embryonic stem-cell research, in which human embryos are created, allowed to grow, and then destroyed for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells.

The process of cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (as the process is referred to by people who appreciate the fact that we, the Great Unwashed, actually know what the word 'cloning' means, and who are thus trying to hide what they're up to behind an impenetrable curtain of technobabble), goes something like this:

  • Step 1: Get an unfertilized egg;

  • Step 2: Remove the nucleus from the egg cell;

  • Step 3: Replace that cell nucleus with the nucleus from another type of cell;

  • Step 4: Artificially induce the cell to start dividing;

  • Step 5: Halt Step 4 when you have a blastocyst, or a cluster of about 150 cells.

That "cluster of about 150 cells" are your stem cells; what you'll do with them at this juncture is a whole 'nother issue entirely, but the current answer to that question seems to be... not a lot. You see, so far, not a single medical breakthrough, or even a promising avenue of research for an effective treatment, has been made possible through the use of embryonic stem cells; not one. On the other hand, research using "adult" stem cells (the production of which do not involve the destruction of embryos) has led to many promising areas for further research, and in several cases, effective treatments.

That hasn't deterred the advocates of embryonic stem-cell research from touting all sorts of pie-in-the-sky promises, from the regeneration of nerve pathways (a la Christopher Reeve) and new skin (for burn victims), to the possibility of customized pharmaceuticals tailored to a patient's specific body chemistry, to the ability to grow complete replacement organs for transplant (although I have my doubts about that one -- the minute a sip of grape Nehi® hits your cloned, replacement liver..., you're screwed!)

Thus, it would appear that the most compelling argument in favor of embryonic stem-cell research is little more than a Utopian fantasy, and the most persuasive argument against it is an eminently pragmatic one: that this godawful-expensive avenue of research has yet to produce anything remotely approaching the results that other avenues of research have already delivered. So why are some people pushing so hard to promote a field of research which has, thus far, yielded no significant results, and yet is so heavily saddled with ethical baggage?

The only explanation I can think of for this attitude points to the fundamental nihilism of embryonic stem-cell research proponents and their cultural fellow-travellers: a gut-level belief that there is nothing particularly special about human beings; that we're just a collection of chemicals; an extreme expression of the notion that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy", according to Ingrid Newkirk of PETA. (Uh, speak for yourself, Ingrid; people who are unable, or cannot be bothered, to count the chromosomes aren't the most authoritative sources on species-related issues. And if you honestly cannot draw any distinctions between "a rat or a pig or a dog or a boy", then your parents' reaction to your prom date must have been a 'Film-at-eleven' moment.)


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