Embryonic Stem Cells 2007
 Then in 2001 I was asked to contribute an article to JLE on therapeutic cloning or, as the President's council on Bioethics prefers to call it, 'cloning for research'. The use of surplus embryos was not at issue. Nor was infertility treatment the primary target of the research. Embryos were to be created using the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique in order to derive pluripotent embryonic stem cells that might one day lead to effective treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's, paralyzing spinal cord injuries, stroke and brain trauma, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, diseases of the bone and cartilage, and even the growth of transplantable organs. The list went on and on, and the number of patients suffering from these diseases and conditions was staggering. Admittedly the therapeutic benefits were hypothetical and, at best, a long way off but that is often, if not always, the case in biomedical research. How would we ever know if we don't investigate further. In the article I confessed to being ambivalent and perplexed -- no doubt some readers concluded I was simply confused -- about the moral status of the early (one to two week old) embryo and whether allowing cloning for research today would make the acceptance of cloning for reproduction more likely somewhere down the slippery slope. Ultimately I found that I could neither advocate the legal prohibition of cloning for research nor wholeheartedly endorse such research without trepidation. What was it my esteemed teacher Paul Ramsey once said about "the man of frivolous conscience" who, despite much hand wringing and many words of caution, in the end always says yes?
 Does the slight drift of my thinking from 1995 to 2001 in the direction of permissiveness show that conservatives' fears about the slippery slope were well justified? I would prefer to suggest that Christian ethics must strike a balance between nonmaleficence and beneficence. If the Christian moral life involves responsibility for the well-being of one's neighbors, how could we not pursue these promising avenues of biomedical research? As Ted Peters and Gaymon Bennett provocatively observe, "To elect an unsure commitment to nonmaleficence rather than an unsure commitment to beneficence would be, as in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, passing by on the other side." That may be true but it's too simple and one-sided. An unqualified commitment to an unsure beneficence may lead us "to do evil that good might come." Christian ethics must hold means as well as ends in view and that requires us to resist the utilitarian imperative to achieve all the good we can no matter by what means.
 Of course, there is simply no escaping the perennial question of the moral status of the early embryo. Should it be regarded as the weakest and most vulnerable of neighbors deserving our protection, rather than exploitation, in the service of others? Or is it just "a clump of cells" to be manipulated, used, and discarded as we see fit? Perhaps we should accord it an intermediate status somewhere (where exactly?) in between. I suspect that most JLE readers are familiar with the arguments for and against various answers to this question, and I have nothing to say that might illuminate, much less settle, the issue. But after all the abstract philosophical and theological arguments have been made and rebutted, I can only concur with the candid statement of former Republican (and pro-life) senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth (who, incidentally, was also a student of Paul Ramsey),
|No theologian, however learned; no church council, however authoritative; no bishop or archbishop, however holy, will ever persuade me that protecting a frozen embryo that will never see the light of day should take precedence over my brother Don [who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis]. No religious doctrine, however earnestly formulated, will ever convince me that cells in a laboratory are so significant that my brother should be denied the benefits of medical research. The very notion goes against both my reason and my deepest feelings.|
The results of recent pro-stem cell research referenda and legislation in various states as well as last November's congressional elections suggest that his sentiments are widely shared.
 But now it's 2007, and there are new developments that should be welcomed by all of us, not least by those who are as conflicted as I am. It may be possible to obtain embryonic stem cells without destroying viable embryos. Research is under way using parthenotes (unfertilized eggs that can be induced to start dividing but could never develop the placenta needed for gestation). Another technique which is, according to Ronald M. Green (head of the Geron Corporation's Ethics Advisory Board in a presentation at the Annual Meetings of The Society of Christian Ethics and the Society of Jewish Ethics in January 2007), "ready for use today" is single blastomere biopsy in which embryonic stem cells are obtained by the same technique used in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The PGD is being performed in order to help couples produce a genetically healthy baby, and while the procedure involves risk to the embryo, there would be little, if any, additional risk if the biopsied blastomere were also used to generate stem cells. Also in January, scientists reported that stem cells similar to embryonic stem cells had been found in amniotic fluid. None of these procedures involves 'creation for destruction'. Most exciting of all is the concept of altered nuclear transfer (ANT) in which,
|the adult body cell nucleus or the egg cytoplasm (or both) are altered before the nucleus is transferred to the enucleated egg so that the newly constituted cell will, from the outset, lack the integrated unity and developmental potential of an embryo, yet will nevertheless possess the capacity for a certain limited subset of growth sufficient to produce pluripotent stem cells.|
William Hurlbut (a Christian physician, neuroscientist and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, who believes human life begins at conception and is the father of a handicapped child) thinks that ANT will provide the therapeutic benefit of SCNT (a genotype identical to that of the patient from whom the adult cell was taken) without "degrading the very humanity we are trying to heal."
 Scientists, themselves, are being pro-active. The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has just issued "Guidelines for the Conduct of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" which call for "special scrutiny of human embryonic stem cell research and specify rigorous ethical standards for scientists working with human embryonic stem cells, seeking to promote responsible, transparent and uniform practices worldwide." The guidelines are far too technical and detailed to summarize here but interested readers may wish to examine them on the ISSCR website. They represent an admirable initiative toward professional self-regulation. However, the burdens and benefits of stem cell research are far too important to be left to the scientific community alone. Religious communities should engage these issues, bringing to bear the moral convictions and critical resources of their faith traditions. We may not know much about embryology, but we do know something about justice.
© March 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 3