PHILADELPHIA — One bioethicist called it “an ethical earthquake.”
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania caused stem cells from mouse embryos to develop into eggs and then apparently into new embryos without the addition of sperm. The repercussions could affect everything from congressional bills that seek to ban cloning to the ability of homosexuals to generate offspring, according to some experts.
The study by University of Pennsylvania researchers was published in the May 6 issue of Science magazine, which also carried a statement from the university's bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, who made the “ethical earthquake” assessment. He said the ban on all cloning passed in February by the House of Representatives and a similar bill pending in the Senate are premature because they seek to regulate a rapidly changing area of research.
To pro-life ethicists, however, the recently reported research raises the same basic question as before.
“Does it involve the destruction of human embryos to get new stem cells?” asked Msgr. William Smith, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. “If so, then we're right back with the same problems we've always had.”
Indeed, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops said the research findings open new avenues for ethical transgressions while offering no solutions to current problems. The assessment is in stark contrast to reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that suggest the new method of harvesting eggs, if applied successfully to humans, will alleviate the concerns of some lawmakers and ethicists who oppose experiments on human embryos.
With the new method, scientists “will be getting the remains of one dead fetus and using those stem cells to produce eggs that may be fertilized to create more human lives to be killed” in experimentation, said Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “There will be no mother or father to serve as a protector or spokesperson for the embryos. They will be more than ever merely research material, a commodity.”
Even if eggs could be developed without killing embryos (for example, from adult stem cells), Doerflinger said the method would be morally suspect if the eggs then would be used for invitro fertilization.
“The dignity of human life requires that it be brought about in the context of normal sexual relations,” he said. Causing the eggs to develop into embryos by partheno-genesis (without fertilization by sperm), as the University of Pennsylvania researchers seem to have done, would also be illicit for the same reasons, he added.
The lead researcher in the study, Hans Schoeler of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Register he will gauge public opinion and seek government approval before proceeding with experiments on human embryonic cells. A German citizen, Schoeler said he also is consulting with officials in his country.
If they say No, he will not use human cells even if he gets U.S. approval and funding. “We see this as an offer,” Schoeler said. “We are asking if we should do this.”
He said if he got the green light, he would derive embryonic stem cells only from the lines or colonies already ruled permissible for research by President George W. Bush.
“You wouldn't need fresh embryos if you're generating oocytes [eggs] not derived from a woman,” Schoeler said.
Even the use of these stem cells raises ethical issues, however.
In August 2001 Bush announced his resolution to a heated debate and permitted federal funds to go to researchers who use stem-cell lines already developed. The decision was supported by some pro-life advocates, including members of the president's ethics panel, but was criticized by the U.S. bishops.
Doerflinger said using the remains of aborted babies or embryos developed by in-vitro fertilization sends the wrong message that we can derive a present benefit directly from a past evil.
“There are questions about the origins of the stem cells that will be used in any such experiments,” Doerflinger said in regard to Schoeler's research. “And even greater questions arise about what they will be used for. If they are used to make more eggs and then more embryos — that is, new human beings — for destructive experimentation, then we're worse off than we are now.”
However, the fact that the eggs are not derived in this case from a living woman is seen by some as a positive ethical advance. Some critics of stem cell research oppose it mainly because it would require using women as “egg farms” and because the limited number of eggs that can be harvested would be fewer than the number needed to develop treatments for all patients who might benefit from stem-cell therapies.
These critics fear the development of an underclass of poor women who would be paid to provide a large number of eggs at the risk of their health. They also foresee patients being denied access to limited treatments for economic or social reasons. These objections would be removed if an unlimited number of eggs could be produced.
Judy Norsigian, head of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, who is against cloning for research purposes, said “com-modification and safety issues would be avoided” by the new experiments, though other issues would remain, according to the Washington Post.
Yet Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said the new research could lead to the “human embryo farms” that Bush has warned against.
Some experts also claim the possibility of producing embryos spontaneously from stem cells threatens the Catholic view of life beginning at conception, the joining of egg and sperm. Doerflinger rejected these assertions, saying the Church simply affirms that human life begins when conception occurs, against those who claim it begins later.
But if human life could occur in other ways yet to be developed (such as cloning), the Church would condemn the method as unethical while affirming the humanity and dignity of the life created, just as the Church says invitro fertilization is wrong while the resulting human life has full dignity, he said.
“Obviously,” Doerflinger pointed out, “the Church cannot say that human life can only begin with the meeting of sperm and egg because we have a fundamental belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, who is fully human and fully God.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.