Arts Public Lecture VIII – Stem Cell: Letting go of the fantasy

Presented by Professor Barbara Katz Rothman, Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York. Visiting Fellow, Sociology, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

Monash University Law Chambers,
Seminar Rooms 1 & 2 (ground Floor)
472 Bourke St, Melbourne.

When: 26th May 2010.
5:30pm, for a 6pm start.

Stem cell research has been presented to us as the next great hope, the new path to a long healthy life, with replaceable parts, grown to order as need be. The questions is: are we driven by the desire to cure, to care, or to generate profit?

In this lecture, internationally acclaimed Professor of Sociology, Barbara Katz Rothman, critically examines some of the arguments made about stem cell science and treatments. She encourages us to think about what is happening in stem cell science now, about the implications for women, who increasingly are encouraged to sell embryos for research, and about the economics and ethics of a field which is full of great promise.

“Stem cell research is perhaps best understood as the tail end of the last great biomedical paradigm -genetics. (The new paradigm, the neurosciences, has yet to produce much of anything in the way of treatment.) Stem cell research has raised a host of ‘bioethical questions’. To my mind, one of the most interesting of those is just precisely what constitutes a ‘bioethical’ problem. When is a problem one of ethics, and when it is one of justice? Coming from a country without (as of this writing) national health insurance, that is not an insignificant issue in biomedicine. However these bioethical issues are presented, framed and discarded, stem cell research is ongoing and presented as a new hope for a host of conditions. Using a model first established in the era of the chemical paradigm, ‘treatments’ are created, tried out on animals and then humans, and then marketed. But is that what is actually happening? Is stem cell research following the path of a ’search for a cure’, or is it – as I would argue – the search for a market.

These days, lab mice are as likely to suffer the harms of research to test a new version of an existing drug (developed to extend its patent life, or a new use for an existing drug), as they are to suffer such harms in the context of research to test a new drug for an existing unsolved disease. Drug companies with patents look for markets. Rather than starting with a problem, they start with a solution, an object in the world in search of its economic place. In this case, the object is stem cells. So, is there money to be made? …..Could be, could well be…..Let’s find out, let the research begin.”

See also Postcard Brochure [PDF, 790k]


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