Cooper’s “Labors of Regeneration” (response)

This chapter really captivated me.  I’ve pondered the ethical and philosophical implications of stem cells, egg “donation”, and biomedical patents since entering a biomedical engineering program over ten years ago, and Cooper’s analysis has helped my understanding immensely.  I’ll organize my questions and responses by her section headings:

1) Reproductive Medicine: Humanizing Agriculture

“some of the most disquieting effects of the new reproductive sciences – in particular, the suppression, confusion, or reversal of generational time – were evident in the field of animal biology long before their human applications brought them to the attention of bioethicists” (133)

–          I’m reminded of how agricultural breeding practices were the scientific basis for early eugenics programs, against which I know there were ethical protests.  Were there really no bioethical responses to the agricultural reproductive sciences before its direct application to humans?

Cooper quotes Clarke saying that reproductive scientists and clinicians were concerned with controlling menstruation, conception, contraception, abortion, birth, menopause, etc.  This strikes me as controlling not just the biological process, but also the female herself.  I’m not quite sure where to proceed from this observation, although it’s probably relevant to Cooper’s later discussion of the human egg market.

“this translation of reproduction, via ARTs, into marketable commodities has taken place within strict regulatory limits, precisely because it concerns the realm of human reproduction” (135)

–          I haven’t read Cooper’s next chapter yet.  Does she address why humanness matters so much?  Is it just blatant speciesism (as defined by Peter Singer)?

2) Reproductive & Regenerative Medicine: Rethinking Generation

Cooper’s distinction between the different philosophies of reproductive and regenerative medicine is very helpful.  Reproductive medicine views growth as the process of cell differentiation, which involves a loss of potentiality and inevitable death, and it finds cancer so repulsive because it’s an unproductive “surplus of life” that “avoids aging & death by refusing to differentiate.” (138)  Regenerative medicine, however, completely reverses the picture: “contemporary science describes the stem cell as the most benign, regenerative, and therapeutic of cells” and “stem cell science seems to suggest that the quasi-cancerous properties of the ES cell line are in fact enormously productive.” (139)

–          But current experimental ES therapies most often result in actual cancerous tumors.  How is this “benign”?  Overly optimistic or outright exaggerated and misleading talk of “cures” is a big problem with current hES debates.  For example, in 2004 the following political “infomercial” aired nonstop in Missouri (this video also provides a fairly simple explanation of ES science, if you want a primer): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUb3dsrR8AA

Cooper later discusses the futures economics of ES science, which requires that companies such as Genron adopt this optimistic, forward-looking language in order to recruit investors.  Is this a major source of the “cures” talk so often found in popular news media?

–          Cooper mentions that “embryonic stem (ES) cell” used to be interchangeable with “embryonal carcinoma (EC) cell.”  With this, I’m struck yet again by the power of rhetoric and simple word substitution.  I doubt we would have the same support for carcinoma cell therapies as opposed to stem cell therapies, or for pro-abortion platforms as opposed to pro-choice platforms.  Did you notice in the political video the substitution of “early stem cells” for “embryonic stem cells”?

3) Selling Generation: From Family Contracts to the Embryonic Futures Market

Cooper’s chapter one makes much more sense to me now in the context of hES science.  I had never really understood the role of futures/derivatives in the stock market – the “post-modern game of betting on bets” (141) made my head spin – but it makes sense in this context because all that really exists to be traded is potential products/therapies/procedures.

4) Post-Gerontology

Cooper presents Geron as an example of a company taking advantage of the embryonic futures market.  I remember Geron was awarded the first ever hES patent, which is the subject of Cooper’s next section.

5) Reinventing Generation

Cooper argues that in order for companies like Geron to flourish, there had to be “a profound legal reconfiguration of the value of human biological life” (147) since traditionally (at least since the prohibition of slavery) the human organism, or anything encompassing the human organism, could not be patented as it was not property.

–          I’m curious how hES, admittedly “the source of all human (re)generation,” can be distinguished from the human itself, so that hES lines can be patented without patenting something encompassing the human organism.  As Cooper puts it, “The potential person will not be commodified – but the surplus life of the immortalized human stem cell will enter into the circuits of patentable invention.” (147)  I can’t make this philosophical leap.  How can the surplus of life be different from the result of that surplus?  Is potentiality the key?  As long as the ES cells aren’t allowed to differentiate into a fully human organism, then they are not that organism?  I guess that’s a little easier to swallow.

Cooper discusses the historical importance of the decision to award Geron a patent for its hES line and all resulting products.  (Ack!  Couldn’t a resulting product be an actual human?  Doesn’t that destroy what little comfort I gained in my previous discussion?)  But she doesn’t mention Bush’s 2001 decision to provide federal funding only for already-existing hES lines.  Did Bush know he was solidifying Geron’s monopoly?  (Was Geron a financial supporter of Bush’s presidential campaign?)

–          Since this patent is so important, I’m curious how it was decided (especially since I have a patent languishing in the application phase going on 6 years now).  What debates occurred?  Who held the power to say yes?  Was there any external influence/oversight, or was this a completely internal Patent Office decision?  (Would answering these questions make a good term paper?)

6) Commodification or Financialization?

Cooper’s argument that “what we should be looking to here is not so much Marx’s reflections on the fetishized commodity form but rather his formula for capital” (148) makes a lot of sense to me, but I’ve never really read Marx before, so I’m interested if the rest of the class finds her argument compelling.

7) Global Egg Markets

Cooper makes a very good point that the embryoid capital’s “mystification lies in the belief that the embryoid body is capable of regenerating itself,” (150) when in reality it requires lots and lots of eggs from lots and lots of typically economically vulnerable women.  I wonder if the debates surrounding the global egg market differ from those surrounding the general global organ market, considering the huge financial hES stake in having a continuous supply of eggs.

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