by William E. May
Excerpt from Chapter Six: Experimentation on Human Subjects
3. Research on the Unborn, In Particular, Embryonic Stem-Cell Research
The basic norm, clearly developed by Donum vitae (Vatican Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation), as we saw in the previous section and also in Chapter One, rightly condemns as utterly immoral any nontherapeutic experimentation or research on human embryos. Any form of experimentation or research on a human embryo performed on it not for its own benefit but for that of others is unethical and gravely immoral, particularly if the experimentation is such as to gravely harm the unborn child. Any procedure whereby new human life is generated in vitro in order either to use it for implantation and gestation later on or to freeze it or to use it for experimental purposes is radically immoral and unjust, however good the motivation for doing so.
Experimenting on human embryos and using them as subjects of scientific research is today common in our society. Doing this is "justified" by appeals to the great good that can be accomplished by using tissues, organs, etc., from these early human beings in order to cure or at least ameliorate dread diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
A. What Are Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Why Are They Used for Research?
In the final years of the twentieth century, embryo stem-cell research, in particular, became a matter of great interest. Stem cells are cells that develop very early in the human embryo after fertilization. They form the "inner cell mass" of the early embryo during the blastocyst stage, when the embryo is about to implant in the womb (the "outer cells mass" of the blastocyst are called the trophoblast and form the placenta and other supporting and vital organs needed for the development of the unborn child within the mother). These cells go on to form the body of the developing human person and are thus called the embryonic stem cells. Although they are not "totipotential," as are the cells organized into a unitary whole in the pre-implantation embryo, they are "pluripotential" since they have the capacity to develop into any of the 200 and more different kinds of cells that make up the adult human body. In theory, if these cells are extracted early enough during embryonic life, they can be cultured and manipulated to become the cells needed for specific therapeutic purposes. The cells thus produced can be transferred into an organ (e.g., the brain), where they can proliferate and replace or repair cells that are injured or dying because of some disease. With modern technology, there is reason to think that they can be designed to repair or replace muscle or brain cells, transplanted into human hearts or brains in order to treat such maladies as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and various heart maladies, and in this way restore health to many people.39
Three principal methods, all of them intrinsically immoral, are currently being proposed for retrieving embryonic stem cells. The first is to induce the abortion of early embryos and retrieve their stem cells. The second is to produce embryos in vitro solely for the purpose of research, including stem-cell research. The third — favored by the presidentially-appointed National Bioethics Advisory Commission — is to use the so-called "spare" embryos produced in vitro for infertility treatment and cryopreserved. According to the proposal favored by the Commission — although its final report, as of this writing (February 2000), has not yet been issued — such frozen embryos would be thawed and allowed to develop to the blastocyst stage, when the stem cells would be extracted from the inner cell mass. All three of these methods require the intentional killing of unborn human children and are hence intrinsically evil. Even those who advocate such experimentation and research acknowledge that a living thing must be destroyed for the potential gain for others that its destruction can serve.40
As a position paper prepared by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and released on July 1, 1999, rightly says, "The prospect of government-sponsored experiments to manipulate and destroy human embryos should make us all lie awake at night. That some individuals would be destroyed in the name of medical science constitutes a threat to us all."41 Such experimentation and research is barbaric, disguised, and hidden by utilitarian rhetoric and visions of the great good promised by being willing to close one’s mind to the human dignity of the early unborn child, seeing in its place only "tissues" and "cells" with no inherent value.
B. Legitimate Sources of Stem Cells for Research
Ironically, there are procedures available for obtaining human stem cells that do not require the destruction of human embryos. As Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., among others, has pointed out, "Creditable laboratories have identified a wide variety of sources for pluripotential cells with the capability of embryonic stem cells. For example, stem cells from the bone marrow, placenta, or umbilical cord of live births are already in use in treating leukemia. Work currently in progress indicates that such cells can be altered to develop into cartilege and bone tissue and used in replacing diseased bone tissue. Recently (1998) neural stem cells were successfully isolated from living nerve tissue … and show promise for possible use in treating Parkinson’s disease or brain injuries."42 Moreover, in 1999 Dr. Jonas Frisen and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, isolated adult brain stem cells that divided. He is convinced that it will be possible, for instance, to retrieve adult brain stem cells from patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and to treat them with their own stem cells. This procedure would avoid not only grave ethical problems but immunological problems as well.43
Efforts to use human embryos, whether generated in the body of their mothers or in vitro, as subjects of nontherapeutic research and experimentation are utterly immoral, indeed barbaric and inhuman. As Donum vitae put matters, "no objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings, or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother’s body."
39. A good presentation of this matter is given by Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., "Human Embryos and the Stem Cell Controversy," The NaProEthics Forum 4.6 (November 1999), 2-3. See also Edward J. Furton and Micheline M. Mathews-Roth, M.D., "Stem Cell Research and the Human Embryo, Part One," Ethics & Medics 24.8 (August, 1999) 1-2.
40. See, for example, Nicholas Wade, "Embryo Cell Research: A Clash of Values," New York Times, Friday, July 2, 1999, A21.
41. Cited in ibid.
42. Pellegrino, "Human Embryos and the Stem Cell Controversy," 3. Pellegrino cites the following scientific sources to support his affirmations: P. Rubinstein et al., "Outcomes Among 526 Recipients of Placental-Blood Transplants from Unrelated Donors," New England Journal of Medicine 399 (November 26, 1998) 1565-1577; R. Lewis, "Human Mesenchyma Stem Cells Differentiate in the Lab," The Scientist 13 (April 12, 1999) 1 ff; Claire Lowry, "Adult Human Brain Stem Cells Reproduce In Vitro," UniSci Science and Research News April 28, 1999.
43. On this see Ellen G. Pearson, "Agency Seen Trying to Rewrite Rules on Embryos," National Catholic Register, June 27-July 3, 1999. See also Robert J. White, M.D., "Do Human Embryos Have Rights?" America 180.21 (June 19, 1999) 7-9.
Copyright © 2000 by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Nihil Obstat: Reverend Paul F. deLadurantaye, S.T.D
Imprimatur: Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Washington, June 29, 2000
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