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Embryonic stem cells

Apparently, it might be possible to harvest embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. For more, go here and here. The NYT article has this:

Dr. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, said, "I do not think that this is the sought-for, morally unproblematic and practically useful approach we need."

Dr. Kass said the long-term risk of preimplantation genetic diagnosis was unknown and that the present technique was inefficient, requiring blastomeres from many embryos to generate each new cell line. It would be better to derive human stem cell lines from the body's mature cells, he said, a method researchers are still working on.

Wesley J. Smith is also unimpressed. What about Peter L.?

Update: Wesley J. Smith reads the article in Nature, not just the press release, and discovers, first of all, that the embryos from which the cells (yes, plural) were extracted were all in fact destroyed. So m-a-y-b-e at some time in the future (but not yet) we might be able to do what the articles suggested. A case of press boosterism, in other words. Smith also reminds us that the company (ACT) has profited from press boosterism in the past. Public opinion is trending in the direction of increasing support or stem cell research because of credulity among reporters, who rarely probe beyond the surface when claims of scientific advances of this sort are made.

Categories > Bioethics

Discussions - 17 Comments

I agree with Leon: For those who take the status of embryos seriously, this raises the issue of performing what may be a dangerous procedure on an embryo without any medical benefit for said embryo. For those who don’t take that status seriously, this seems like a whole lot of pointless trouble. BUT HERE’S THE BIG POINT: There are a variety of promising avenues of research in this area--one very soon will surely come up with a plausible way of acquiring pluripotent stem cells without killing embryos. But this one, at this point, ain’t it.

I can see some of the dangers in embryo research, like women being paid to undergo egg harvesting proceedures, and other ethical types of concerns. But the idea that destroying an 8 celled mass is equal to murder is just ridiculous. When women have spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) do people bury it? Are there funerals? Is a death certificate filed? Can I take out a life insurance policy on an 8 celled mass? This issue, much more than most, shows how out of touch with reality fundamental Christianity is. People on here have blasted Obama in the past for his hypocritical stand on telling people not to drive SUV’s while driving one himself...yet the same group will talk about the sacred nature of life while eating veal on their leather lazy boy. Oh wait, I forgot, that’s right "god" gave the world’s animals for us to hack up and use as we see fit.

Abbie (like his illustrious namesake) is rhetorically over-the-top. Still, his points are serious. Is our concern for killing embryos based only in religious fundamentalism or does it have a rational foundation that comes through thinking through our doctrine of equality? Some reasonable people, including some members of the President’s Council, are in the "no brain, no heart, no problem" camp. Anything without a brain or a heart--our two traditional markers of humanity--couldn’t possibly be human enough to be worthy of legal protection. Or does the genuine hyprocisy lie with those who are moralistic about veal eaters--crying there ought to be law!--but indifferent to the plight of embryos and fetuses. Let me emphasize that these issues really aren’t easy.

People and animals are not the same. This seems easy to me. And going back, at what point is a human not human? What seems more likely, the day before birth, or the day before conception? Or does Abbie know of the day, the particular day, that falls somewhere between the two? Please, tell me what is "real" here. What was that 8-celled mass going to be, before it was destroyed?

When you take a pregnancy test and want the subsequent child, you do not say, "I have an embryo!" You are excited and happy that you are going to have a baby, and refer to "it" as such. People speak of "making a baby". They never say, "Let’s make a blastocyst tonight, honey." Could some women go into monthly production doing this? Why not?

Nat Hentoff, a humanist and certainly no fundamentalist, wrote this
and has been writing and speaking against abortion for years. It is not just a Christian issue. It is, or ought to be, a human issue.

No death certificate would be filed because no birth certificate would have been filed, because we are not talking about a birth, just a delivery, or not even that. Usually, it is just a mess; a molar pregnancy, and nobody at all. Sometimes it is somebody, and you see him. Sometimes when women miscarry, they do bury the remains, if allowed. Some women have, or would appreciate funerals. Having had two miscarriages, I can tell you, grief happens.

I do not know about taking a blastomere if there is truly no harm done, but surely, Peter’s big point, above, beats this deal.

Incidentally, we do not take tissue even from the dead without prior permission.

When does a human start developing as a unique entity?

According to logic and also human embryology, it is with conception.

So, the destruction, ie death, of an embryo is the death of a human life.

I’m fascinated with this question. We have ways of determining when something has ceased to be a human life, and it has nothing to do with the absence of living cells. Bodies that we do not hesitate to refer to as "dead" have such cells for a long time after death has been pronounced--this is why hair and nails on corpses continue to grow.

As I understand it, death is considered to occur when brainwaves stop. If this is the case, have we not determined that brainwaves are the defining characteristic of human life?

This issue of whether brain death=death of a human being is going to be discussed at the next Bioethics Council meeting. It is, of course, accepted medical practice and the definition used by the Catholic bishops etc.

"Bodies that we do not hesitate to refer to as "dead" have such cells for a long time after death has been pronounced--this is why hair and nails on corpses continue to grow."

John, you’re perpetuating an urban myth there. Once a person dies, and their heart and lungs stop providing oxygenated blood, cells begin the decomposition process right away, through autolysis. The debunking of the hair and nail myth is
fleshed out, so to speak, here.

Thanks, Craig!

Thank you, Dale.

John, Brain waves and death is one thing, but your embryo is not dead, is it? This is the beginning and not the terminus of a life; something forming and developing. Brain wave activity begins in about week 6, but you must be talking about something living for that to happen at all.

Kate, Good response.

Kate, is "living" a synonym for "human"? Each sperm cell and egg cell is a living thing, but we wouldn’t think to assign human rights to either of them, would we?

John, No, and no. Egg and sperm, are not important at all, no more than any of the other living cells in the human body, to which I would not assign human rights. Yet, all of those human cells, in aggregate, might be you or I, and we both agree on our human rights. But combine those two and you are no longer talking about egg and sperm, but what? The immediate transformation of those separate entities into a body of rapidly dividing cells that become - what was it again? Oh yes. If it is human egg and sperm, then it is a human being.

Is that human zygote just some living collection of cells, growing, like a cancer in the body? Is it something to be removed because useless and even harmful to the body it inhabits? No. It is a forming human, whom I would dignify with human rights even though entirely vulnerable and incapable of human responsibility for some time. I ask again, at what point in the development of a human, going back, is the embryo NOT human?

I return to my original point. If we conclude that a fair way of determining the end of human life is the point of brain death--that is, the failure of the body to emit brain waves--why do we not use that as our standard to determine its beginning? Even if I am wrong about growth of hair and nails after death, it is undeniably true that the body can go on "living" for a certain amount of time after brain death has occurred.

John, Even the dead are still considered human. We speak of "human remains" and do not deny the humanity of the dead, which we all treat with dignity, in all cultures. Even if I use your concept, (use, but do not accept) that life begins with brain waves, would we not treat that embryo, pre-brain waves, with the respect due to a human, before brain waves, as we do the remains of the post-brain-waving human?

Peter Lawler wants us to move our argument up the blog. Dale Michaud is commenting and even becoming sarcastic on the topic.

See Good News About Stem Cells.

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