In glass houses

April 12, 2010 • Posted in Born Human

This spring, only two of the fifty tulip bulbs I planted sent leaves out of the sod; but I have noticed tulips elsewhere.  Perhaps the most remarkable have been those in glass planters, with roots, stems, leaves, and blossoms fully visible.  The tulip in this picture was in a glass container on a London restaurant table in December:  out of season, but lovely, nonetheless.

i.v.t. (in vitro Tulip) photo by L. Ian Riley

The term, in vitro, from the Latin means “in glass,” signifying an artificial environment.  In vitro fertilization has been a fact of the cultural landscape since 1978.  We have become accustomed to hearing about  “ivf babies.”  We have not, perhaps, acquainted ourselves with the technology involved, where embryos not implanted in wombs are kept in frozen vials in laboratories across our land. 

Advocates of embryonic stem cell research often propose the use of “excess” or “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization.  Such embryos are the result of joining a human egg with human sperm in a Petri dish in the laboratory.  These embryos belong to the parents whose gametes were used to form them; they are not public property.  Some people realize that the “leftovers” will not be enough, so embryos will be created specifically for research purposes.  If there are not enough human eggs to produce adequate numbers of these research embryos, then the use of human/animal chimeras or hybrids may be considered, as it is now being debated in the UK.  Such proposals should give us more than pause.  If we continue to relentlessly chip away at ourselves, our human dignity, we will end up only subjugating ourselves.  This cannot be healthy or desirable.

It is one thing to take a flower blooming out of season and place it in a glass to bring aesthetic pleasure to some.  It is an entirely different thing to produce and use human embryos as raw materials for our scientific or biotech endeavors.  For it is in how we treat the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens — embryos, in this case — that marks us as a civilization.  Unlike tulips, human beings should not be forced to spend their entire lifespans in glass (or plastic).