ROME — When it comes to genetics, discoveries are being made so rapidly that bioethics tend to get left behind. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of stem-cell research.

So in an attempt to help reconcile the morality and science involved, theologians, scientists, ethicists and public policy experts gathered at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University March 7-8 to discuss the ramifications of recent developments regarding stem cells.

Co-sponsored by a number of institutions, under the lead sponsorship of the New York-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute and the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation, the conference sparked a number of vigorous discussions.

One of the most vigorous centered on a possible new alternative to stem-cell research that requires the destruction of human embryos.

Other ethical quandaries discussed during the Rome conference included “embryo adoption” of “surplus” embryos that are commonly produced using in-vitro fertilization (two priests argued for and against the practice) and the procuring of stem cells from embryos that are already dead (deemed immoral by most delegates).

The new stem-cell technique, called “altered nuclear transfer,” is a means of genetically engineering a human egg to produce human embryonic stem cells without ever forming an actual embryo. The technique, which has been carried out on animal cells but not on human ones, is believed by some scientists and policymakers to have the potential of resolving the moral dilemmas surrounding embryonic stem-cell research.

Many scientists persist in the belief that embryonic stem-cell research, which involves killing human embryos, could greatly benefit medical science by allowing, for example, the growing of heart tissue to repair a damaged heart or nerve tissue to repair a damaged spinal column. Nevertheless, the only technique that has shown positive results is the one using adult stem cells. President Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in 2001.

A human embryo is a unique boy or girl from conception to eight weeks, with DNA, life-expectancy — and the right to life.

In 1987, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught that cloning was immoral. “Attempts or hypotheses for obtaining a human being without any connection with sexuality through twin fission, cloning or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law,” the Congregation wrote in its instruction Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), “since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.” (Question No. 6).

Altered nuclear transfer provides a possible compromise. Dr. William Hurlbut, a Stanford bioethicist, member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and a fervent opponent of embryonic stem-cell research, proposed the new method last fall, and has since been trying to open it to moral scrutiny.

“If we don’t deal with this issue now and do the complex analysis of what we’re trying to defend, we’re going to have neither good morality nor good science,” he warned the conference delegates.

If Hurlbut obtains the moral backing he is looking for, it is hoped that federal funding will be secured, and the technique could successfully be carried out on human cells in six to 18 months’ time.

Altered Gene

So what does the new technique entail? In normal development, the appearance of a protective outer sheath is the first sign that a fertilized egg has developed into more than one type of cell. In Hurlbut’s technique, however, the gene that forms this outer sheath would be turned off, causing a vital web of communication between the cells to fail. Hurlbut argues that this would prevent the cell from becoming an embryo, yet it would develop into an entity from which embryonic stem cells could be used.

It was stressed that this process of genetic manipulation would be accomplished ad initio — from the beginning — so it would not create a disabled embryo, according to proponents. There are also said to be parallels in natural biology in which eggs will sometimes divide wildly on their own and turn into tumors that can grow into almost any type of tissue, even hair and fully formed teeth. The Church does not view these tumors as embryos because they are without a coherent structure and lack “integrated organization.”

All the delegates, including an apologist for embryonic stem-cell research, welcomed the proposal and applauded efforts to find an alternative. However, while there appear to be no absolute moral objections associated with altered nuclear transfer, there are some ethical puzzles to wade through.

Could this technique prevent the formation of a human embryo or create a genetically defective human embryo? Is deliberately creating beings that are less than human fundamentally corrupting, even if carried out for the greater good? Should we be looking upon human gametes (reproductive cells) as having a value that depends entirely on how we want to use them?

In addition, conference participants were concerned that commercial interests could lead to the widespread and risky practice of “superovulation” — the artificial stimulation of many eggs — and a consequent exploitation of women who are materially poor as a source of eggs for stem cell research.


These imponderables caused a fair amount of caution among delegates. Eric Cohen, director of the bioethics program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., called for more research on animals and clearer boundaries that affirm and protect “the inviolability of the human organism in the earliest stage.”

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Bishops Conference, described the explanations given on the new procedure as “compelling” but called for more research and testing. Lord David Alton, a leading pro-life activist in Britain’s House of Lords, guardedly welcomed the proposal but was unsure of the morality behind the procurement of these eggs. Other delegates also voiced concern over how the science could be open to abuse in the future.

Hurlbut stressed both the promise and perils associated with such research.

“It’s like nuclear energy — we’ve got this great power in our hands and we’ve got to be very careful with it, but I’m trustful that if we underscore the moral meaning — the principle of the sanctity of human life — that this will be the best protection against using it on all other levels,” he said. “That’s the one good thing about my proposal. It absolutely says this is a line we don’t cross, but we can go to it.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.