Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?

Harvesting stem cells without tears

What are we to think about the fact that Nature (and for believers, Nature's God) profligately creates and destroys human embryos? John Opitz, a professor of pediatrics, human genetics, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, testified before the President's Council on Bioethics that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in women's normal menstrual flows unnoticed. This is not miscarriage we're talking about. The women and their husbands or partners never even know that conception has taken place; the embryos disappear from their wombs in their menstrual flows. In fact, according to Opitz, embryologists estimate that the rate of natural loss for embryos that have developed for seven days or more is 60 percent. The total rate of natural loss of human embryos increases to at least 80 percent if one counts from the moment of conception. About half of the embryos lost are abnormal, but half are not, and had they implanted they would probably have developed into healthy babies.

So millions of viable human embryos each year produced via normal conception fail to implant and never develop further. Does this mean America is suffering a veritable holocaust of innocent human life annihilated? Consider the claim made by right-to-life apologists like Robert George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, that every embryo is "already a human being." Does that mean that if we could detect such unimplanted embryos as they leave the womb, we would have a duty to rescue them and try to implant them anyway?

"If the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions: Alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined," declared Michael Sandel, a Harvard University government professor, also a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

As far as I know, bioconservatives like Robert George do not advocate the rescue of naturally conceived unimplanted embryos. But why not? In right-to-life terms, normal unimplanted embryos are the moral equivalents of a 30-year-old mother of three children.

Of course, culturally we do not mourn the deaths of these millions of embryos as we would the death of a child—and reasonably so, because we do in fact know that these embryos are not people. Try this thought experiment. A fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you have a choice: You can save a three-year-old child or a Petri dish containing 10 seven-day old embryos. Which do you choose to rescue?

Stepping onto dangerous theological ground, it seems that if human embryos consisting of one hundred cells or less are the moral equivalents of a normal adult, then religious believers must accept that such embryos share all of the attributes of a human being, including the possession of an immortal soul. So even if we generously exclude all of the naturally conceived abnormal embryos—presuming, for the sake of theological argument, that imperfections in their gene expression have somehow blocked the installation of a soul—that would still mean that perhaps 40 percent of all the residents of Heaven were never born, never developed brains, and never had thoughts, emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, or desires.

Yet millions of intelligent people of good will maintain that seven-day-old embryos have the exact same moral standing as do readers of this column. Acting on this sincere belief, they are trying to block biomedical research on human embryonic stem cells that is desired by millions of their fellow citizens.

But there may be a way out of this politico-theological impasse. The President's Council on Bioethics held an extraordinarily interesting session earlier this month in which two different avenues for obtaining human embryonic stem cells were proposed, in ways that would skirt right-to-life moral objections.

First, Howard Zucker and Donald Landry, two medical professors at Columbia University, proposed "a new definition of death for the human organism, an organism in development, and that is the irreversible arrest of cell division." They pointed out that a good percentage of in-vitro fertilized (IVF) embryos consist of a mixture of cells, some containing the wrong number of chromosomes (aneuploidy), some with the normal number. Embryos with such cell mixtures often cease development by cell division and thus cannot develop into fetuses, much less babies. Zucker and Landry argue that such embryos can be considered dead, and the normal embryonic cells they contain can be harvested just as organs can be ethically harvested from brain-dead adults. (Animal experiments have already shown that cells harvested from defective embryos will produce normal tissues.) Thus, we get stem cells from an entity that could not, under any circumstances, have become a human being.

William Hurlbut, a consulting professor in the Program of Human Biology at Stanford University and another member of the President's Council on Bioethics, proposed another way to produce cloned human embryonic stem cells that right-to-lifers should not find morally objectionable. Hurlbut cited work by researcher Janet Rossant at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto in which she inactivated the cdx2 gene in mice. Once the cdx2 gene is inactivated, the mouse embryo cannot form a trophoblast—the tissues that grow into the placenta. However, embryonic stem cells do develop, although they cannot form an embryo. Hurlbut proposed an attempt to find similar genes that could be inactivated in the nuclei of adult human cells before they are installed in enucleated human eggs to produce cloned embryonic stem cells that are a genetic match for the person who donates the adult nucleus. (Transplanted cells and tissues produced by such therapeutic cloning would not be rejected by the donor's immune system.) Once the stem cells have been derived, the inactivated genes could be reactivated so that the stem cells could be used to produce normal transplantable cells and tissues.

"This process does not involve the creation of an embryo that is then altered to transform it into a non-embryonic entity," explained Hurlbut. "Rather the proposed genetic alteration is accomplished ab initio, the entity is brought into existence with a genetic structure insufficient to generate a human embryo."

Will this research reduce the number of embryos populating heaven? Who knows? But these options offer a possible way around the moral blockades that impede promising biomedical research on human embryonic stem cells. Should we halt current human embryonic stem-cell research while these possible new avenues of research are being explored? Absolutely not. That would be surrendering to the moral bullying of a minority that wants to halt promising medical research that could cure millions on theological grounds that many of their fellow citizens do not share.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Brian Holtz||

    Great lifeboat question about the Petri dish!

  • ugg factory outlet||

    I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz - I need some time to think about this!

  • Jeremy||

    Your link to "60 and 80 percent of all naturally..." is broken. Any chance to fix it please. I would love to quote this stat in a paper I am writing.
    thanks!

  • ||

    I don't know if Jeremy still needs this a month and a half later, but for anyone else looking for the 2003 transcript that the broken link is supposed to point to, you can find it here:
    http://bioethics.georgetown.ed.....sion1.html

    The relevant section is found in the Q&A about two-thirds of the way down the page, and is an answer from Dr. Opitz to a question from Prof. Sandel.

  • Crask||

    That's a completely ridiculous analogy meant to sidetrack us from the real issue for the gullible, brainwashed, and simple-minded.

    Nobody would save the embryo's because 1, they're likely not going to be saved even if they were saved because of the fact that they are probably in there for reasons other than to be implanted,

    2, the children still in single-cell form don't feel pain
    3, and probably the most pertinent reason, the mortality rate makes the children in embryo stage most likely to die anyway even if implanted.

    You're analogy is like asking if I'd run to save a bunch of children from a fire 10 miles away or would I save the one child in the fire going on across the street from me? Of course we'd save the one across the street. What?!?! And let those other kids die?!

    It's a stupid analogy meant to confuse and brainwash the simple-minded by leading them to a conclusion that has a lot less to do with the argument as to whether their lives are just as important than it at first sounds because the reason that we wouldn't choose to save the embryonic children over the newborn child's life is simply because it wouldn't be feasible or sensible, and very plausibly a waste of time as they're likely already condemned to death no matter if you save them or not.

  • Bill||

    Really? Embryos in a fertility clinic are not there to be implanted? That's the whole point of a fertility clinic and that was implied in his life-boat scenario. So, as far as lifeboat scenarios go, this was a pretty realistic one that highlighted the pertinent question raised by religious fanatics.

  • Crask||

    1/3 posts

    And yes embryonic mortality rate would be considered an epidemic if it were something that just started happening.

    But this is something that's been going on as long as humans have been reproducing that happens beyond our ability to safely or feasibly control it.

    It's sad, just like a miscarriage is sad, just like infant mortality rates used to be truly sad. Do you want to say that because our medical efficiency and so increased that infant mortality today is entirely unnatural because so many live that we should be okay with mother's "choosing" to euthanize their newborns?

    That's essentially what you're saying. Right now our medical efficiency does not allow us to feasibly nor safely save all those children that fail to implant just like not too long ago our medical efficiency made it impossible to save something like what 60%, 70+% of babies born into this world? Infant mortality rate today is like 41% in the U.S. That's right, 41%.

    Think about it. In our less medically advanced world just about as many newborns naturally died before 4 weeks as it's estimated embryos naturally don't implant today.

  • Crask||

    2/3 posts

    So here's a question for you, you're in a burning building, you have a 5 year old in one room, and 7 newborns in another room. You have to choose one or the other, who do you choose? As many as possible of course. Notice how mortality rates are insignificant when making this decision. To bring it up the way you did is only to brainwash the simple-minded. (liberals) The only difference here is that you can't see a human being in the embryonic stage of development, but that doesn't make them any less important, not even when they have high mortality rates in some stages more than others.

    Does that mean heaven is full of newborn babies?
    Does that mean heaven is full of embryos? Well, about as full as it is of newborn babies I suppose.

    Finally, this argument isn't even a religious one in nature, so to bring heaven into the debate as though it's absurd to think heaven would be full of people who died during the embryonic stage of development is also a brainwashing tactic meant to derail real point here, and thus confuse more idiots who refuse to think objectively.

  • Crask||

    3/3 posts

    The real issue is simply the real fact that we were all there, and if at anytime you had died from the moment of conception until birth, for whatever reason, you would not even be here to debate the merits of killing your offspring before they develop past a certain stage of life. That simple little concept says it all. Getting rid of you via abortion. Say whatever you want, but you were still killed, thus proven by the fact that you would not even be here to discuss this when quite obviously you should have been, i.e. you are, because you were not killed sometime after conception. I know I couldn't speak then, but I can now, and I want to live, and I'm sure you're decision is the same, regardless of what your mother may "chosen" back then.

    And don't give me the inane argument that were a male gamete, because nobody was ever a sperm cell. A human being consists of 2 different people, not half of one.

    And one last note, that embryonic mortality rate is estimated, meaning they've never actually been able to prove how often eggs are literally fertilized, and don't end up implanting. For all we know, those the don't implant, it may be a lot less of them that were actually conceptions than we realize. But either way it doesn't matter because heaven is full of newborns, so there's no reason it can't be just as full of people who died while still in the embryonic stage of life.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well, think about it, we can now clone a new person out of each and every living human cell, if we are willing to spend a bunch of money on it... So... Every time you brush your teeth and BRush 10,000,000 living cells off of your cheek linings and flush them down the drain... Or even EAT something, and DIGEST those cheek-lining cells... YOU ARE COMMITTING MASS MURDER!!!!

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement