Ethical Embryo Workarounds?

|

The science journal Nature has published two papers which describe two new and different ways to produce embryonic stem cells. The goal of both techniques to provide an ethical workaround aimed at avoiding the pro-life assertion that embryos are the moral equivalents of people.

The first technique, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology remove one cell from eight cell mouse embryos and grow that cell into embryonic stem cells while the remaining seven cells develop into a baby mouse. Already, in vitro fertilization clinics have shown that removing one cell from a human embryo at this stage to diagnose genetic diseases does not prevent the remaining cells from developing into babies once implanted in a woman's womb.

The second technique developed by researchers at the Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts involves the creation of cloned mouse embryos. The researchers disable a gene from the donor nucleus that that is required for cloned mouse embryos to implant in a mouse uterus. The donor nucleus is installed in a mouse egg whose nucleus has been removed and is jumpstarted down the development pathway. Cells taken from the genetically disabled mouse embryos do establish embryonic cell lines, but the disabled gene has to be turned back on later because it is needed to form intestinal tissues.

Will these attempts at technical workarounds for ethical concerns succeed at quelling opposition to research on embryonic stem cells? According to the New York Times, the Catholic Church remains opposed all research involving human embryos. This is in line with the Church's continuing opposition to in vitro fertilization.

I do wonder why disabling just one gene would somehow allay whatever ethical concerns prolifers have regarding the moral status of embryos? Treading tendentious theological grounds, surely it can't be the case that only genetically "normal" embryos receive souls? And what to do with the 80 percent of naturally conceived embryos that never implant? As I asked earlier, "Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?"

NEXT: The Justice Department vs. the Rule of Law

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.

  1. Unfortunately, this will do nothing to remove the “yuck factor” which is the real concern the Religious Right has with stem cell research.

  2. God has been and will continue to be the largest abortion provider in history, even when it against the will of the mother. But this mysterious plan aside, I doubt the recent new scientific end-arounds to develop embryionic stem cells will make the anti folks very happy. The science is a bit too complex to be quickly digested and the hard-liners will be able to quickly blurt, “but they are still killing babies, even if those babies live,” or some other such nonsense before the details of what’s going on can even be considered.

  3. I don’t know the demographics of Heaven, but according to the latest Onion, Hell is dominated by drug offenders.

  4. Given what we know of the neo-Luddites, I doubt it will make a difference. Hell, these are the same sort of people who went apeshit over treatments for syphilis.

  5. If Heaven is populated chiefly by the souls of embryos, it will be exciting for about three minutes. What will you have to talk about with one of the unborn? They won?t even have names!!

    ?He just went on and on about how his placenta didn?t attach right. When he asked me what bugged me most about umbilical cords, I just blanked.?

  6. Trey-

    If heaven bums you out, just head downstairs and light a joint.

  7. The second technique developed by researchers at the Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts involves the creation of cloned mouse embryos. The researchers disable a gene from the donor nucleus that that is required for cloned mouse embryos to implant in a mouse uterus. The donor nucleus is installed in a mouse egg whose nucleus has been removed and is jumpstarted down the development pathway. Cells taken from the genetically disabled mouse embryos do establish embryonic cell lines, but the disabled gene has to be turned back on later because it is needed to form intestinal tissues.

    Unfortunately anyone treated with stem cells from these lines will be left with an overwhelming desire to eat cheese.

    /rimshot

  8. I wonder if it makes sense for them to bother playing ball with this issue. It seems like the researchers are conceding to the opponents the ethical issue, which isn’t really settled. In return the opponents still object, but will now point to this as proof that even the researchers are squeemish about the whole issue.

    If the ethics issue is settled, then the whole process of In Vitro fertilization needs to be banned.

  9. Would someone please engineer ears with constricting rectal muscles so I can close them when needed!
    I also need nipples that whistle. Never mind why.

  10. Whistling Nipple would make for a great band name.

    Here’s a question I have about abortion and God.

    If God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful, wouldn’t he just opt to forgo the installation of a soul into those fetuses that He knows will be aborted?

  11. Excuse my total theological ignorance, but according to Catholic dogma wouldn’t unbaptised embryos go to Hell? I have even less idea what non-Catholic sects might believe … some sort of pre-destination?

    If they were on their way to Heaven then it’s much harder to see what all the fuss is about.

  12. mediageek-

    When God neglects to install a soul in a fetus, a politician is born.

  13. mediageek,

    Perhaps he installs them with past souls reincarnated repeatedly into damned bodies as their eternal punishment.

    I can see the advert now:

    Have An Abortion, Defeat Hitler Yet Again.

  14. I think Catholic embryos go to purgatory.

    If non-Catholics are interested in predestination, then why do they worry about the issue at all?

  15. Excuse my total theological ignorance, but according to Catholic dogma wouldn’t unbaptised embryos go to Hell?

    I think that Catholic orthodoxy has it that unbaptised babies end up in Limbo. However, I’ve been out of the RCC loop for quite a while now so don’t quote me on that.

  16. Here’s what wikipedia has to say:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbo

  17. thoreau,

    When God neglects to install a soul in a fetus, a politician is born.

    I might have guessed you would have used “lawyer” instead of “politician” in that sentence. Or is it you are only considering the subset of lawyers that become politicians?

    I learn something new every day. 🙂

  18. Thank-you, Shawn, for catching my omission. I will correct that by noting that when God inserts a demonic spirit instead of a soul, a lawyer is born.

  19. Hey, I resent that! I’m working very hard for my bat-like wings and immense talons. Don’t denigrate me by suggesting I was born with a forked tongue in my mouth…

  20. Thoreau, stop being a tease. You make abortion sound like such a good idea.

    /bad taste? You be the judge.

  21. Preface– I’m in favor of stem cell research and the legality of abortion. HOWEVER, why the snark? Is it absolutely out of the realm of possibility that the anti-abortion/stem cell people really BELIEVE that an unborn child is a person? Why is that worthy of ridicule? The bit about God being the ultimate abortionist is also stupid. By that logic since God is the ultimate killer of adults it must be OK to kill anyone you want. It’s not a good comeback, it’s not snappy repartee, it’s a juvenile response to people who, I think, really believe that they are trying to protect helpless lives.

  22. There is the idea of being “baptised by blood” or something like that where unbaptized individuals are killed as martyrs or serving God have their death considered to be their baptism. I guess since the aborted fetuses and destructed stem cells are on the front lines of the holy war against secularism, they might fall into that category.

  23. “Will these attempts at technical workarounds for ethical concerns succeed at quelling opposition to research on embryonic stem cells?”

    Thie first one will, provided it’s not risky to the embryo, and the second one won’t.

  24. This really isn’t a “concession” so to speak on the part of the scientific community. After all, this is great pub for those researchers. This type of research is just another example of the politization of science.

    As for religious matters, of course the RCC would denounce this, especially with Benedict in charge. But it’s not really the Catholics who run the US, and protestants don’t listen to the pope. It’s not so hard to ethically separate an embryo inside a human (which will become a human) and an embryo inside a petri dish (which will never become a human). The fight over embryonic stem cells is and always will be one battle front in the abortion war, and no matter what philosophical or scientific workarounds you devise, the majority of the anti-abortion crowd can never support embryonic stem cell research without giving at least a little ground on the abortion issue.

  25. This may cause a rift between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. I’ve talked to several fundies I know regarding this subject in the last day or so, and the 100% of the response is… they’re all for this type of SCR.

    I couldn’t even begin to guess at what the overall Catholic response will be, since all the Catholics I know are pro-choice.

  26. Catholic teaching is silent on the fate of unbaptized children who die before reaching the age of reason. Limbo was a speculative answer developed by medieval theologians, but never endorsed by the teaching authority of the Church.

    The 1994 Catechism posits that such children will be judged by God, by standards known perhaps to him alone.

  27. Of course, hypothetically speaking, if there were a way to extract stem cells from an embryo without destroying or impairing it, I would not be against its legality. It would still be immoral to conceive an embryo in an unnatural way (ie, outside the womb/fallopian tube), but it would be a live-and-let-live issue if no innocent humans lose their right to life.

    BTW, if you don’t know already, I’m known as the Papist Avenger on this forum.

  28. Thank goodness for Mr. Bailey! An excellent article. Robert George is an enormously clever fellow; too bad his religious stance has already given him all the answers in life he is able to embrace and he feels relegated to using that cleverness to engaging in apologetics for those answers! On the other hand Mr. Bailey looks for answers, wherever they be found…George calls himself a conservative, but what saving petrie dishes over children has to do with the common-sense, everyday, ordinary thinking of Burke I don’t know. Sounds more like the over-abstraction Burke denounced…

  29. BladeDoc-I think you are correct that these people (some of them, some just want any excuse to clamp down on sexuality) think that embryo’s are children. Bailey is showing that this is an absurd way to think, so absurd in fact that not even these people REALLY believe it (and I mean really in a logical not sincerity fashion); i.e., they would choose the three year old kid over the petrie dish (and they don’t hold funerals for the discharged embryos…). Some people REALLY believe the Bible is literal, but even don’t go around stoning witches, as the Bible literally demands…

  30. BTW, if you don’t know already, I’m known as the Papist Avenger on this forum.

    Dude, you need some theme music! I suggest “The Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance, although you should also consider “Wlderness” or “The Song of the Sybil.”

  31. Bailey is showing that this is an absurd way to think, so absurd in fact that not even these people REALLY believe it (and I mean really in a logical not sincerity fashion); i.e., they would choose the three year old kid over the petrie dish (and they don’t hold funerals for the discharged embryos…).

    Once again, this is an argument based on emotion, not logic.

    Once again, this is an attempt to shift the crux of the debate from “When does a human life begin?” to “When does a human life begin to matter to me?

    Once again, this is an argument that the originating basis of an entity’s human rights –rights that the rest of us are obliged to respect is not the intrinsic nature of that entity. Rather, its rights are supposedly created by the attitudes, feelings, culture and customs of the people around it.

    This is a strange, ultra-collectivist communitarian approach to human rights that is peculiar for alleged libertarians to uphold.

  32. Shoulda been another dash after “respect.”

  33. Hell, these are the same sort of people who went apeshit over treatments for syphilis.

    Forget about syphilis, they didn’t even like the idea of a cure for the non-sexually transmitted Smallpox.

    This is a strange, ultra-collectivist communitarian approach to human rights that is peculiar for alleged libertarians to uphold

    I would say that it’s more pragmatic than anything. Nobody today can say difinitively where “life” as such starts without appealing to some religious authority. The best one can hope for is some ad-hoc set of standards to apply in any given situation. As a result of this, the question becomes “which standards are most important, given the lack of any true answer in situation A.” If at some point in the future we can pin down where life begins then it will become collectivist, but until then it remains good sense for people who have to make the decision on a day-to-day basis.

  34. I’ll resist the temptation for blatant blog promotion and offer the direct link to a Wired story that got me excited about the potential of a bridge from here to there that promises to include most everyone. Got a great photo of a tumor too. I mean this is pretty cool.

    And for the record, most christian faiths preach that until a child has the knowledge of what God requires of him or her and the ability to act upon that knowledge there can be no sin. Therefore, in the event of an untimely death the soul gets a free pass. Not so for those who know better and reject the doctrine.

  35. Nobody today can say difinitively where “life” as such starts without appealing to some religious authority.

    Shem, I don’t think I can agree with that. Unless one is really arguing, again, when life should start to matter to the rest of us, this is a biological phenomenon under discussion. This is a debate that atheists can have, and settle, on the basis of logic and biology, without recourse to a religious authority.

  36. Stevo-then where is it? The closest I can come to finding one is putting the mark at “when the fetus can survive outside the mother,” which leaving aside religious concerns, is becoming more and more foggy with every advance in neonatology. Until we figure it out, the point is mostly academic. Given that fact, figuring out which parts of the definition are most important is something that can and should be indulged by anyone in the debate.

  37. Ken,

    On the other hand Mr. Bailey looks for answers, wherever they be found…

    unless they undermine his pre-determined position, of course. Which is why his articles paint all those who oppose any controversial biotech research as benighted, dishonest luddites with repressed sex fetishes.

    If you want a specific example, look at his article on the effort to keep Plan B prescription-only. Wherein he implies that the only reason anyone opposes this abortifacient drug is because they’re afraid it encourages promiscuity.

  38. Shem,

    The problem with using viability as a benchmark is that it is less dependent on the unborn entity’s own development, than it is on the level of medical technology of the society the mother lives in. If viability is the measure of personhood, the same fetus, at the same stage of development, would be a person in modern America, but not in modern Malawi, and definitely not in 19th century America.

  39. So viability is flawed. I agree. But where then do you place the line? There’s no real difference between the day before birth and the day after, so that’s out. Yet, giving full rights of personhood to an embryo doesn’t seem reasonable to me either, especially given the widespread use of IVF technology. From this perspective, viability emerges as the best alternative availible, although I will grant that it’s based more or less on the acceptance of the above points, none of which are foregone in any sense. My major point was that given the disagreement inherent to the debate, assigning a subjective “starting point” for rights in the interests of pragmatism is not necessasarily communitarian unless it continues after evidence emerges that provides an objective alternative.

  40. Shem, I’d have to logically conclude that the objective event that begins the existence of a human being as a discrete individual is the completion of its conception, when the zygote’s unique set of human DNA comes together.

    I know most people here feel otherwise. Most people just don’t feel that a barely fertilized zygote should have the full rights of a human being at a stage they can see, touch, and interact with. And again, at this point they tend to deflect the debate to when life begins to matter to them. “When brain waves start,” or whatever.

    But, rather than debate the starting point of a life, my original point was that the human rights of an entity shouldn’t depend on how the people around it feel. And that’s why, “it can’t be a human being because we don’t mourn it or give it a funeral” is a crashingly weak argument, albeit a disappointingly persistant one for all that.

  41. Stevo-
    Bailey’s (and my) argument may not be as emotional as you think. It’s more like an actual bona fide logical argument, straight from logic 101:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum

    His point (and mine) is that to accept that embryo’s are human beings, with all the rights thereor, leads to crazy results (such as having funerals for the discharged, working to re-implant them, carrying around pictures of our deceased empryos, etc.).

    And Bailey has had a consistent view of when life begins: when people have working brains. We actually don’t mind this test at the end of life (brain dead).

    Crimethink: As to Bailey and the Plan B prescription drug: he argues that the only reason for opposing it must be on the grounds of restricting sexuality because he shows that even pro-life people don’t REALLY think embryo’s are humans (i.e. they don’t act towards them as one would a human, and don’t really advocate we should).

  42. Ken,

    It’s kind of hard to mourn for someone you don’t know exists. In most cases, an embryo which fails to implant and perishes, is not known to exist by anyone. Should that be the criterion of personhood?

    And ultimately, my biggest problem with Bailey is that he doesn’t accept the possibility that his opponents are sincerely mistaken. It is hard, even for a pro-lifer, to get worked up about the destruction of a microscopic embryo, despite an abstract belief that said embryo is an innocent human being. It just doesn’t inspire the visceral horror that the murder of an already-born person does. Even sincere people often have a disconnect between one’s abstract beliefs and one’s action.

  43. Nah, Ken. Funerals and mourning are really for the end of a relationship, not the end of a human being. That is why we only go to the funerals of people we know. Plenty of people have died whose funerals I’ve never attended. That doesn’t mean I regard them as not human.

    FWIW, I did know a couple who mourned when the wife had a miscarriage, very early in the pregancy, and lost a clump of cells. Also, the nurse from the hospital sent them a sympathy card, which they appreciated. They were pro-choicers, by the way. But most people don’t get to feel like they have a relationship with an embryo, often even if they are the ones carrying it.

    I think the brain activity thing is non-logical also. There’s a difference between an innate but temporary incapacity (as at the beginning of life) and a capacity that has been lost for good (as at the end of life).

    I enjoy Ron Bailey’s articles about Green hysteria, but he seems to have a blind spot in this area. As crimethink has said, Ron seems to dismiss anyone who objects to dinkering around with human embryos as a Luddite troglodyte. But the questions of, “What is entitled to human rights, and when does that entitlement begin?” are not trivial, nor are the answers so obvious as some of you seem to think. Yet they are critical. It is possible for someone to care about these questions or reach a different answer without being a superstitious Bible-thumping moron.

  44. It is possible for someone to care about these questions or reach a different answer without being a superstitious Bible-thumping moron.

    Just as it’s possible for someone to find them to be immaterial without being a Liberties-snatching communitarian, do you agree?

  45. Steve and crimethink-
    I appreciate your comments. I’m not sure though that the lack of funerals for embryo’s is due to the lack of relationship, or just a realization that these things ain’t people…For the record, my wife and I just went through a painful third month miscarriage. It was rough, but I don’t think we ever thought we had lost a “child.”
    I also think when a person has a sincere disconnect between his abstract belief and his everyday practice he may want to re-examine his abstract beliefs. We should not be tyrannized by this stuff if it is unworkable (as Homer Simpson said, in theory communism works).
    I do appreciate the distinction between a temporary lack of brain function and an irreversible one. Excellent point.

  46. Shem: Yes, touche’.

    Ken: I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you guys get through OK and that your efforts are eventually rewarded with the gift of a child. (Sorry, that wasn’t quite the tone I wanted; it either comes out cold-blooded or religio-sappy. It’s very hard to respond correctly to these situations; it really is like our culture is maladapted to handle them.)

    I usually hate to get involved in these “embryo rights” threads because they usually devolve pretty rapidly, but you all have been pretty civil. Maybe we’re just exhausted by the subject?

  47. Stevo-thanks for the comments, I take them in the best light, as I think they are offered in the same :).
    Your points are well made. Good discussion! It’s a thorny issue, and debating it makes me think.

  48. Ken and Shem, you’ll have to share the Most Reasonable Opponent trophy this week — I only have one. 🙂

    Thanks all, for making me think also.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.