Public Release: 

Gametes and embryos from mammalian stem cells: religious and ethics perspectives

Science and Religion Information Service

A report to be published online by SciencExpress on 1 May 2003 (K. Hübner et al., "Derivation of Oocytes from Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells,") raises important questions of definition, ethics, and policy regarding gametes and embryos. Three religious scholars explore the implications of this work if it extended to human embryonic stem cells.

1. Statement of Thomas A. Shannon, Professor of Religion and Social Ethics, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, (phone: 508 831-5468), an expert on Catholic teachings on the moral and theological status of the human embryo.

"Let's assume that we learn that human ESCs can be teased into developing into oocytes and then into a stable pre-implantation embryo. What follows? With respect to the moral standing of such an embryo, several realities much be faced clearly. First, if one's position is that mammalian life begins with fertilization or conception, that position can no longer be maintained in either theory or practice. Clearly one can begin the life of a mammal without fertilization. This would apply to humans as well, though this is a theoretical possibility at present. Thus if one holds that fertilization or conception signals the or is the presumptive beginning of a human person, as for example the Vatican document Donum Vitae does, then this position is severely challenged. Should human embryos be derived from human ESCs, the resulting embryo would be living and it would bear the human genome, though it would have only the genome of the donor of the stem cell donor.

"The fact that this living human organism bears the human genome gives it a certain moral standing, but these two characteristics are not necessarily signs of personhood. I have argued previously that not until the process of restriction is completed and the developing embryo is actually an individual does one have the first necessary but not necessarily sufficient criterion of personhood. To be a person one must first be an individual. Until that criterion is passed, discussions of personhood of the embryo are premature--though not discussions of its moral value.

"What are the implications of this for this study? For research: given the traditional caveats of replicability of the research, safety and efficacy, using human ESCs to develop into embryos for the purpose of generating further ESCs for therapeutic purposes presents no substantive ethical problems. The organism derived by this or other means is not, in my judgment, a human person.

"For reproduction: we are so far away from this application that it is barely worth talking about it. Traditional IVF is still not as successful as many would like, though the statistics are getting better. Cloning is not established, at least in reputable scientific publications. Organisms have been cloned but one can hardly argue that the method is safe or efficacious. In this research we have one report. Human applications for reproduction are a long way off. While we should think about such a possibility, we should also be aware of hyping the discussion by extending the research beyond its current limits.

"We do need to think about the human embryo in a philosophical and theological sense. We need to be aware of the growing possibility of the commodification of human embryos. But within the context, I also think we need to be aware of overextending philosophical and theological arguments about the moral standing of the human embryo. Arguing that not all human embryos are persons resolves one critical element of the ethical debate but not all. We still need to keep in mind that we are indeed working with living embryos with the human genome and that research on these organisms or material derived from them needs to be conducted with respect for their dignity and with appropriate care. Whether this can be done is a commercial setting is a question for further debate."

2. Statement of Ted Peters, Professor of Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley CA; Office: (phone: 510 524-5264 or 510 249-2561), an expert on theological and philosophical implications of genetics and stem cell research.

"This scientific research is like a cannon ball fired across the bow of Christian bioethics. Many Christian ethicists try to ground their commitments on an increasingly outdated picture of nature and how nature works. Many still operate with the assumption that babies require a mommy and a daddy--that is, an event of fertilization or conception upon which the entire structure of protecting human rights is built. Enter first cloning (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer), and, in principle at least, nature might allow us to give birth to babies whose DNA comes from only one parent, or even a stranger to both parents. Enter next this reported experiment with mouse embryonic stem cells that become embryos, and now it appears nature just might allow us to create babies without use of gametes, either eggs or sperm.

"What's next? I forecast that future scientists will attempt cytoplasmic reprogramming--that is, they will attempt to take a healthy somatic cell, perhaps from skin, return it to its pre-differentiated state, and then activate it as an embryo. This would mean, finally, that any cell in our body is a potential baby.

"What does this mean for ethicists who try to ground protection of the early embryo's rights on an alleged natural law that personhood arises when the egg is penetrated by the sperm and God imparts an immortal soul? If eggs can be activated without fertilization, does God still impart an immortal soul? If so, when? Looking ahead, if in the future we make babies without use of gametes--without either egg or sperm--then just when does this embryo gain morally protectable personhood and why? The old argument based on natural law needs a new paint job if not a trade in for a new model.

"Christian ethicists are to be commended for their dedication to protect the dignity of yet-to-be-born persons, and to protect the dignity of all human beings especially when they are unable to protect themselves. Yet, the old arguments understandably based on pre-scientific experience with child bearing will no longer suffice as science reveals more and more about how nature works. The new genetics cannot by itself provide the foundation we need for building an ethical policy. Christian ethicists may have to return to special divine revelation interpreted by careful reasoning and sound judgment."

3. Statement of Ronald Cole-Turner, the H. Parker Sharp Prof. of Theology and Ethics, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (412-441 3304 x2170), an expert in theological and ethical assessments of genetics and cloning.

"If you were to do this work with US federal funds and using the embryonic stem cells approved for use under these funds, or in any jurisdiction that prohibits research involving human embryos, at what point would you be breaking the law? If you come into the lab in the morning to find that you've created functional embryos, are you in legal trouble? Would anyone really say, 'You've created little people?'

"There is something patently absurd about thinking that human embryos can self-generate on a pane of glass. When we look at them, we might regard them with astonishment but hardly with moral respect.

"But what if someone says that these cells really are embryos and deserve both respect and legal protection? That makes sense only if you're willing to stretch the definition of 'embryo' far beyond its breaking point. As a result of parthenogenesis or cloning, these cells might be able to function in some ways like embryos, but they are not embryos in the moral or religious sense, and they should not be protected as such. Why? These cells may be functional embryos but they are not what we normally mean by the word because they lack both the normal genesis and the normal destiny of true human embryos.

"Some will argue that if these cells function like embryos and could possibly develop into a full human being, then they have the potential for human life and must be regarded as one of us. It's important to see that the research reported here destroys this logic. It amounts to a technological reductio ad absurdum that shows the fallacy of arguing that an embryo is the same as a person because it has the potential to become a person. If totipotent stem cells have the potential to become embryos, then by this logic it would have to be said that totipotent stem cells are also potential persons and deserving of respect, something no one would want to say.

"Technology has created something radically new. It is like an embryo, but it is not an embryo. We badly need a new vocabulary. At the same time, this work is not so much an act of raw technological power as it is a highly sophisticated way of persuading nature to give up its secrets. We have found here that nature does something completely surprising. Once we discover nature's secrets, we can exploit them. In this way, nature reveals its own vulnerability, becoming increasingly pliable in our hands. Where will we find wisdom to guide us?"

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