Friday, August 26, 2005

Trying to put my finger on the relevant difference.

Trying to come back from my blogging hiatus (during which I wrote a couple things that my institution is more inclined to count as scholarship than they are a blog -- Luddites!). There are a couple big issues I've got in the hopper, but on at least one of them, I can't hold forth until my brother has sent me an article I asked him to send me.

So instead, I'm going to take up an issue where I haven't been able to work out an answer that satisfies me.

Months ago, PZ Myers discussed a biology teacher who dissected a dog for his class. A live dog. PZ Myers noted that, to the scientist trying to understand the phenomenon that is a mammal, dissection of dead tissue just doesn't give you the same sense of what an organism is. If the point of dissection is to teach you something about the organism, then arguably, live dissection is better.

Also important to note: The dog that was dissected was scheduled to be euthanized, as are many dogs in this country given our propensity to make more dogs and cats than we can take care of. And, the dog was anesthetized during the dissections (although some of the commenters at Pharygula wondered whether veterinarians really know all they should about adequate anesthesia for animals, let alone in situations like this.

I see the argument here. The dog is going to die no matter what. Isn't it less wasteful to get some useful educational experience out of this dog -- one that won't cause it any pain -- than to just put it down?

But ... there's a part of me that's uneasy about this. Not just because I'm a dog person (which I admit I am). There's an aspect of this transaction that feels ethically ... dangerous. It seems to feed into the conviction some folks have that animals are ours to do with as we please, or that the quest for scientific knowledge (even for secondary students in a biology class) is more important than the life of a dog. To get through a live-dog dissection, I suspect one might need to make oneself at least a little callous to the welfare of the dog, to shut off that flicker of empathy for the other creature. There are times that may be necessary, but I have a hunch that we're better off cultivating empathy than quashing it. (The lack of empathy for fellow scientists one sees in the halls of science can be striking...)

Here's the thing, though: I don't have any similar worries about what might be a parallel case, the use of "extra" embryos or aborted fetuses for stem cell research. Those extra embryos aren't going anywhere; they're just getting freezer burn. Why not learn something from them? People aren't (to my knowledge) getting pregnant and then terminating those pregnancies in order to support stem cell research. So this could be viewed as equivalent to getting some use out of the dog that's going to be put down.

Of course, we're talking human stem cells here. I'm not a card-carrying speciest (ran out of slots in the wallet, yo), but I'll confess that I probably favor human welfare over dog welfare more often than not. But I still don't get the ethical willies out of stem cell research that I do from live-dog dissection. Whether it's justified or not, I suspect the researchers working with the embryos and fetuses aren't risking the same sort of empathy callouses that someone doing live dissections needs to develop.

Am I wrong not to see a stronger equivalence here? Should I worry more about the stem cell research? Less about the dog?


At 9:23 AM, Blogger Julianne said...

This was an excrutiatingly direct and true point. I am glad to have read it, and only hope that you and I could discuss this subject further. In my public speaking class, I am going to give a speech on dissection. I am pro-dissection of the aborted fetus.


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