Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Future of Stem Cell Research

In today's Washington Post, in an article entitled "Stem Cells Without Moral Corruption," (free registration may be required to access the article) Robert P. George and Eric Cohen do an excellent job of pointing out the errors in the attitudes of many scientists in the quest for "progress" with stem cell research and cloning. This "progress" does nothing more than use and discard human life - in the form of human embryos.

George and Cohen point to the infamous Hwang Woo Suk, a lead research from South Korea, who in 2004 and 2005 triumped his achievements in cloning human embryos and stem cell lines from cloned embroyos. But hi
s work was determined to be fabricated. "Apparently, no cloned embryos were ever produced; no embryonic stem cells were ever created." In addition to the fabrication of data, Hwang "used eggs procured from junior researchers in his own lab - a violation of the Helsinki Declaration that governs medical research - and then lied to cover it up. His partner, Roh Sung II, paid 'volunteers' for additional eggs and forced them to lie about it on their consent forms." Hwang and his partner exploited women in their desire to acheive cloned embryos. These women "undergo a risky and unpleasant procedure - first, ovarian hyperstimulation, and then the insertion of a needle into their ovaries to procure the wanted oocytes - with no medical benefit to themselves." This type of exploitation and coverup
would never happen in America, researchers assure us. But as time goes on ... some will call the ethical limits into question: Why not pay women for their eggs? Why not induce poor women to profit by risking their health? Of course, no responsible doctor coudl advise his patient to undergo such a procedure. But perhaps we will simply "update" basic medical ethics as well, and decide that the "good of mankind" trumps the good of individual patients.
George and Cohen do not like the slippery slope of "progress" for the "good of mankind":
We have seen where this amoral logic leads us -- to shameful abuses of research subjects, which surely no one wants to repeat. But we have also seen, in the stem cell debate, how moral lines erode quickly -- from using only "spare" embryos left over in fertility clinics to creating human embryos solely for research to creating (or trying to create) cloned embryos solely for research. What will be next? Probably proposals for "fetal farming" -- the gestation of human embryos to later developmental stages, when potentially more useful stabilized stem cells can be obtained and organ primordia can be "harvested."
George and Cohen then argue that two pieces of legislation currently in the Senate would help protect the dignity of human life by prohibiting fetal farming and "one that would fund alternative methods of producing genetically controlled, pluripotent stem cells -- just the kind of stem cells we would get from cloning, but without the embryo destruction."

George and Cohen draw two final points: one about the cloning scandal and the other about the future of cloning research.
In the end, the lesson of the cloning scandal is not simply that specific research guidelines were violated; it is that human cloning, even for research, is so morally problematic that its practitioners will always be covering their tracks, especially as they try to meet the false expectations of miraculous progress that they have helped create.... But because cloning is so morally problematic, we need to find another way forward.

Instead of engaging in fraud and coverup, or conducting experiments that violate the moral principles of many citizens, we should look to scientific creativity for an answer. Since the cloning fraud, many scientists -- such as Markus Grompe at Oregon Health & Science University and Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT -- have been doing just that. And others, such as Kevin Eggan at Harvard, may have found a technique, called "cell fusion," that would create new, versatile, genetically controlled stem cell lines by fusing existing stem cells and ordinary DNA. Scientists in Japan just announced that they may have found a way to do this without even needing an existing stem cell line.

In other words: all the benefits of research cloning without the ethical problems. Looking ahead, it is becoming increasingly likely that reprogramming adult cells to pluripotency, rather than destroying human embryos, will be the future of regenerative medicine. It offers both a more efficient and far more ethical way forward.
This article provides some good reflections about the state of stem cell research and and the lessons that should be learned from the cloning scandals. Ultimately, the only true advances in science are those based upon the dignity of man and the respect for human life. Without these two fundamental truths, progress will be nothing more than the destruction of the weak and innocent in the name of the advancement of the "good of mankind." Science and medicine has seemed too eager to abuse those who are weak or disabled for the good of all, but we should take time to respect and defend those who are innocent and weak and give them the proper dignity that is due to them as human persons.


Michael Bindner said...

The article is mostly about how corrupt scientists will go to far for financial gain. It says more about the level of honesty in some corners of the globe and in some industries.

As to the moral theology of theraputic cloning, your teachers have sadly misled you. When I was an undergraduate at Loras College, we asked our ethics professor about when life began. From a purely natural law ethics perspective, because of twinning, human life cannot begin until gastrulation. Gastrulation is also the point at which cross species fertilizations fail (if you took a human egg and dog sperm, it would grow until that point - I challenge anyone who says such an abomination has a human soul) and it is also the point where the genes of the father fully participate in the development of the child. I was not who I am until my father's genes were as strong as my mother's in my growth. Until then, I was an egg with my father's code "tagging along" getting set up for the begining of life.

For more information on Gastrulation, see the Encyclopedia Britannica's entry (the Macropedia) on sexual reproduction and then follow the footnotes to real embryology texts.

Now, the Church and you theologians have an opportunity to return to the genesis of Catholic reproductive theology by abandoning the cult of the blastocyst and focus on our traditional opposition to Eugenics. Eugenics was an attempt to improve the white race and the church fought it, especially mandatory sterilization of the "feeble minded." If stem cell research is part of a program to weed out or alter the "defective" then its roots in eugenics are obvious. However, if it is about relieving pain, then the objections melt away, provided one knows his or her embryology.

James said...

Mr. Bindner,

You bring up the issue of twinning which is intertwined with the developmental stage of gastrulation.

First, I want to make a point that should be equally valid for both of us. There is no biological evidence available which could ever give us indication of whether a developing zygote has a soul. Ensoulment is not a matter of a biological event but rather it is an event from God.

My argument, from the Catholic perspective, demands that once a zygote has formed (of course under the aspects of human biology - human male sperm and a human female egg) that it demands unconditional respect for its' dignity as a human being. Why is this?

Because the zygote is a completely new cell which begins continuous cellular development towards its goal of a fully developed human life with its appropriate organs and fluids. How or when the soul occurs is something that God determines, but it is the Church's argument that life begins at conception and that we should accord this new existence with a proper dignity befitting a creature of God.

You may then ask - what of the possibility of twinning? My response would be - so what? Why could not God provide a second soul for the twin, if and when that occurred?

"The fact that the Creator, whose providence extends to abnormal chance events as well as to normal, natural events, uses chance to produce individual B is no odder theologically than that He ensouls the child begotten of a sinful act just as he does one begotten in holy matrimony"(Benedict Ashley and Kevin O'Rourke, Health Care Ethics 4th ed).

God can provide when he sees fit according to his plans since ensoulment is His domain, not biology's doman.

It seems to me that scientists and thinkers are so ready to jump the gun and declare anything that does not measure up to their "understanding" of human existence to be "non-human" or less than human so that they can be used or discarded. You see this same attitude with the elderly and disabled, etc. Why don't we just give this new zygote its due respect because it is a human life? It is no doubt that the issue of abortion has clouded the judgment of new life in the womb and in the laboratory. Who does it hurt to accord the new conceptus the dignity of human existence? There is no reason why scientists cannot find more appropriate methods of reserach through the use of adult stem-cell research and the like. Why must new life be destroyed?

Finally whoever said that the goal of medicine or research should be about the relief of pain? Our goal should be to protect the dignity of each and every human life from the moment of conception to a natural death. And with this defense and protection of human life, we should seek to live a life according to how we were made and for what we were made - and this can only be in reference to God and his will.

Michael Bindner said...

The fate of the soul and the body are intertwined. Put another way, the actions of the body demonstrate the existence of the soul. We know that when death occurs the soul has moved on. Using the same logic, we know that when development occurs, the soul is present. We know that development starts at gastrulation. As moralists, we must take what science has to say very seriously. I would dispute what you say about not knowing when ensoulment occurs. Prior to Humanae Vitae, which I view as an attempt at branding Catholic identity, Catholic theologians were pretty clear that the soul was not present at fertilization. Ya'll should reject papal encroachment and go with the facts.

You also did not address the other facts relating to cross species fertilization, which is a slam dunk against the erroneous position that life begins at fertilization.

I am not arguing for a wholesale disregard for inconvenient life. I am arguing for speaking the truth about when life begins. If we do that, maybe, just maybe, they will listen to us when we tell them about a Gospel of Life. BTW, the extremity to which some self-promoted around the living death of Terri Schaivo does nothing for the movement, especially since we now know that her neurologist was correct in his assessment of her condition. Arguing that moral consistency is necessary in opposition to the facts damages the Church's credibility with both Catholics in the pews and the outside world. I am not talking about capitulating to the world, I am talking about not lying in the face of the facts in order to bolster ones argument. Traditional teaching on death and dying said giving nutrition was not necessary. If that position had been respected the Church would not have had egg on its face over this affair. If we want to know why the pews are empty we need only look at ourselves. The people in the pews know when they are being lied to.

James said...

Mr. Bindner,

You mention gastrulation again. It is your contention that it is the beginning of development. However, development is already occuring when the sperm and egg come together. The zygote is not just an egg or just a sperm but a combination that begins a multicellular process towards its full potential - a human existence. Everything that will later it will be, exists right there, TOGETHER. You have decided to characterized gastrulation as the beginning of development instead of characterizing fertilization for what is really is - the start of something new.

I did address your nonhuman fertilization point in my prior post, although not directly: :"My argument, from the Catholic perspective, demands that once a zygote has formed (of course under the aspects of human biology - human male sperm and a human female egg) that it demands unconditional respect for its' dignity as a human being."

I would never see the cross-fertlization of non-human sperm and a human egg as being a serious attempt at fertilization. Logic demands that if we want a human being, we must start with two human elements - human male sperm and human female egg.

I will not even get into the Terri Schiavo case because of its complexity and it is also off topic for the present discussion at hand.

I will finally make mention that throughout the history of man, there has been countless possibilities about the time of ensoulment. So we can glance back at history but that does little to tell us of the scientific reality concerning the fertilization of the egg and sperm and the new existence there in the form of a zygote which carries all the potentialities of new human life as well as all the material inherently necessary to make it come to be through the proper environment of the womb.

Life begins at fertilization. When people realize that, then we can begin to build a culture of life that respects all human persons from fertilization to the natural death.