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Thursday, May 8, 2003


Ethicists bid to unscramble egg argument

It's often been said that philosophy lags behind science. Bertrand Russell's "The ABC of Relativity," for example, was published in 1926, 21 years after Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity.

News photo
Folliclelike structures derived from mouse embryonic stem cells are seen in this image.

We'll give them a break, those poor philosophers. It must be hard to come up with the philosophical implications of, say, quantum mechanics, when only a specialized handful of physicists themselves can understand it. Yet there is one area where the philosophers are well ahead of the scientists, and that is one where we would expect them to have the edge. It is when we think about what it means to be human.

Philosophers have had a good 3,000-year start on scientists here. In fact, scientists are only just beginning to develop the techniques that will enable them to alter human life. But philosophers, principally bioethicists, are ready to jump into the fray, as we saw last week when Science published the latest stem-cell research.

A team of U.S. and French scientists announced they had caused embryonic stem cells from mice to develop into eggs. This means that embryonic stem cells are totipotent, the ultimate type of cell, capable of developing into every cell type in the body, even reproductive cells (eggs and sperm). Until last week, ESCs were considered simply pluripotent -- capable of developing into other somatic (body) cell types, but not germ (reproductive) cells.

Now, remarkably, both male and female stem cells can give rise to egg cells. And though those oocytes (eggs) weren't fertilized, they developed into embryos. Scientists think that the technique will work on human cells.

The language used to report this is emotive, with talk of "human-embryo farms," an "egg-donor underclass," "commodification" of embryos and the "blurring of the biological line between fathers and mothers." It seems that it is the media (and rightwing politicians of strong religious conviction, like U.S. President George W. Bush) who started the fray in the first place.

So what do religious scholars have to say about it?

Thomas Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass., is an expert on Catholic teachings on the moral and theological status of the human embryo. Assuming we can make embryos from human ESCs, he says, "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. . . . 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."

Shannon goes on: "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. . . . 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."

The U.S. Senate is now debating the moral merits of therapeutic cloning, but as Shannon says: "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."

Ted Peters, professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., an expert on theological and philosophical implications of genetics and stem-cell research, concurred with Shannon's view: "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."

The new work shows that this might soon be a false assumption for humans.

"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?" asked Peters. "If eggs can be activated without fertilization, does God still impart an immortal soul? If so, when?"

Surely even the arch word-twisters in the Vatican are going to have a tough time answering that question.

"The old argument based on natural law needs a new paint job if not a trade in for a new model," said Peters. Christian ethicists are to be commended, he said, "Yet, the old arguments understandably based on prescientific 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."

A return to "special divine revelation?" I'll leave that one to the monks to figure out.

Ronald Cole-Turner is professor of theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An expert in assessments of genetics and cloning, Cole-Turner also thinks that calling the new cells "embryos" is incorrect.

"Technology has created something radically new. It is like an embryo, but it is not an embryo. We badly need a new vocabulary. . . . 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?"

Where indeed? The responses from religious scholars have been reasoned, sensible, well-informed. Everything that Bush's statements have not been, and without the tabloid hysteria.

And remember, Shannon says: "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."

Rowan Hooper welcomes comments at rowan.hooper@tcd.ie

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