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?"