Making stem cells ethically? Not so fast.

The most recent news flash in the world of human embyronic stem cell research has been the development of a new technique for making ES cell lines from human embryos without harming the embryo. In a nutshell, researchers have successfully made cell lines from single cells from 8-10 cell stage human embryos. Single cells are commonly taken in a procedure known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and the remaining cells are still (usually) able to make a normal baby. It was a very small step beyond that to suggest that if we could take those single cells for genetic testing, we could probably grow them up into stem cell lines. And, that appears to have been successfully done. No big surprise; it’s a rather astounding technical breakthrough, but nothing more.

So, we can make stem cell lines without necessarily killing the embryo. What does this mean? For a lot of folks, I suspect it means that their barrier to allowing embryonic stem cell research has just been removed. If you don’t have to kill babies to make stem cells, then why not make the stem cells? Well, there are a lot of reasons. First, how did you get the embryos in the first place? In vitro fertilization. In my not-so-humble opinion, and in that of the Catholic Church, IVF is immoral, because it dissociates procreation from the marital act. It also produces far more embryos than can be implanted, and multiple embryos must be implanted in order to ensure that one survives to birth. Yes, it’s one way for infertile couples to have children, but nonetheless, it is unethical. So, the source of embryos is inherently flawed. Since that’s the case, then regardless of how wonderful the new technique for producing ES cells is, it still does not resolve the fundamental ethical problem.

I ran across the research in question on Wesley J. Smith’s blog. Smith is up at arms because it appears that the news release does not match the research. I don’t see that as being an issue, nor does another scientist who has commented on his blog. The research did produce ES cell lines from single cells. Smith rightly points out that more than one cell was removed from each embryo, and the embryos were then destroyed, but the proof of principle remains that a single cell could make a cell line. That embryos were killed in the research in question is a terrible travesty, but the media in this case accurately reported the results.

We should not be harping over technicalities on this issue; the science in this case is quite sound. The ethics aren’t. Until embryonic stem cells or their equivalent can be produced without artificially creating or harming a human embryo, then no amount of miraculous new techniques, nor any amount of nitpicking about those techniques, matters at all. And, even if we are able to ethically produce human ES cells, it still remains to be seen whether they will be useful for anything. And, even if they prove useful, then there is the very real potential for using them to produce human clones. It’s that Brave New World-like scenario that makes me leery of the whole enterprise.

UPDATE: Ryan Anderson on First Things‘ blog has a much better summary than my own.


3 Responses to “Making stem cells ethically? Not so fast.”

  1. 1 Bekah August 25, 2006 at 12:07 pm

    “And, even if we are able to ethically produce human ES cells, it still remains to be seen whether they will be useful for anything.”

    That, IMO is the crux of the matter. We should not be putting anyone’s life at risk for a utilitarian purpose. I wouldn’t force you to give your kidney to my son, just because you have an extra one, and he may need it (which he doesn’t, this is a hypothetical :)). Nor should we be allowing a cell, which at the stage these embryos are in may or may not cause harm, to be removed forcefully.

    I don’t believe that there will ever be an ethical solution to Embryonic Stem Cell research. I do believe that we should focus on adult stem cells which have shown promise and have no ethical stigma about them. If it cannot be done ethically, we’ve no right to do it.

  2. 2 Philippok August 25, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    Research using stem cells taken from embryos created in in-vitro fertilization has been termed unethical due to the harm it causes to the embryos.

    Normal human reproduction also results in considerable harm to human embryos. Dr. John M. Opitz of the University of Utah Medical School testified to the President’s Council on Bioethics that the rate of loss of embryos created in normal intercourse due to miscarriage is 60 to 80 percent.

    Therefore, doesn’t the creation of embryos in normal human reproduction result in objectionable ethical problems? Shouldn’t the practice be banned?

  3. 3 Edmund C. August 25, 2006 at 9:56 pm

    Philip, I am aware of the loss rate of embryos during normal human reproduction. That’s a fundamental fact of life that’s taught in basic embryology. But it does not apply to the IVF debate, at least not in Catholic circles. There is quite a difference between loss due to a natural process, and loss due to artificial means. I suppose you know that embryos lost during normal reproduction are often lost due to errors in chromosome segregation or other gross abnormalities that would be incompatible with life. Other embryos fail to implant for reasons unknown to us. Nonetheless, no human action is involved in destroying them. Therein lies the reason your argument is invalid.

    But, that is not even the major issue here. IVF subverts the natural order in general. It requires an act of masturbation at the beginning, and produces more embryos than are implanted, and which in almost all cases are either frozen indefinitely or discarded. It is a valiant attempt to eliminate infertility, but does so in a way that is utterly unethical.

    I am happy to go into more detail if you’d like.

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