Revising the 'status quo' on embryonic stem cell research

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research, heartened by an executive order from President Obama which lifted many Bush-era restrictions on federal money for this controversial bio-medical research, are facing a setback after a federal court suspended the 2009 executive order. Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth said the EO violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos. The judge wrote that his temporary injunction returned federal policy to the “status quo." According to the NY Times: "few officials, scientists or lawyers in the case were sure Monday night what that meant" in practical terms for their ongoing research. "The judge ruled that the Obama administration’s policy was illegal because the administration’s distinction between work that leads to the destruction of embryos—which cannot be financed by the federal government under the current policy—and the financing of work using stem cells created through embryonic destruction was meaningless.

The Reagan appointee ruled that "If one step or 'piece of research' of an [embryonic stem cell] research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding."


A spokesperson for the Justice Department said it was reviewing the court's ruling while researchers and officials at the National Institute of Health await guidance on how to proceed with new or existing research. Here's the rest of the Times report. Meanwhile, efforts continue substitute adult stem cells for embryonic cells for the advancement of this research, which could eventually translate into therapies for a number of devastating illnesses. You can read more about it in this issue of America: "A biomedical revolution." 

And here's David Gibson's take at Politics Daily.


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Bill Collier
8 years 7 months ago
Thanks for your thoughtful and heartfelt post, and my name is Bill Collier. For some reason, only my surname appeared in my earlier posts.
You raise many good points, and you’re right that "life has a way of muddying the ‘correct’ answer." I hope I don’t come across as seeing bioethical issues in black and white; I tend to see most moral issues in shades of gray. Nevertheless, there is a lot that troubles me about assisted reproduction, perhaps a better term than "artificial reproduction," the term I used in my earlier post.
I do understand the yearning a couple, unable to conceive, may have for a child of their own. For them, in vitro fertilization offers hope that may be difficult for them to ignore. And though, as I said, I agree with the Church’s teachings on assisted reproduction, I could at least be sympathetic to a decision involving in vitro fertilization of a woman’s single egg by her husband’s sperm, followed by the attempted implantation of that fertilized egg.
In vitro fertilization technology often includes much more, however, that I consider morally suspect or wrong. For example:
– The creation of multiple fertilized eggs for use during a single attempt at implantation. More fertilized eggs increases the odds of implantation, of course, but multiple implantations may also result in the culling (selective abortion, really) of some implanted embryos to increase the odds of carrying one or two embryos/fetuses to term.
– The creation of multiple fertilized eggs for freezing and storage for possible attempted implantations in the future. Unused fertilized eggs, as we know, are the source material for the destructive ESCR that results in stem cell lines.
– The use of donor sperm for fertilization. Besides the bioethical issues already noted as to the creation of multiple fertilized eggs, the use of donor sperm also raises troubling sociological issues, IMO, about the sources of one’s genotype.
– The use of pre-implantation genetic screening. Such screening is being used to identify genetic defects (e.g., Down’s Syndrome) that result in rejection of in vitro embryos for attempted implantation. I find this screening morally reprehensible, and how long will it be before "defects" also include such genotypic and phenotypic characteristics as brown eyes, curly hair, etc.?
IMO, in vitro technology has moved us further and further from procreation to re-production of what has in some instances become a commodity. Just because scientists have the know-how to manipulate the essential stuff of life doesn’t mean that they should be doing it. Is there any line in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to assisted reproduction? Or does anything go, including the killing of embryos for their inherent treasure, i.e., their pluripotent stem cells, that may or may not prove beneficial to their brother and sister human beings. Should "beneficial" to someone else even be a consideration when it comes to the destruction of life? The late bioethicist Paul Ramsey said that we are all "fellow fetuses." IMO many people have forgotten the biological and moral connection that all human beings share. And it’s because we share that connection that each and every human being must be accorded both human and personal dignity that requires, in the first instance, the unimpeded opportunity to experience life along the natural continuum from the womb to the tomb.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
I agree with everything you say, Bill - the multiple eggs, the donor sperm, the test tubes, all of it offends my sense of the sacredness of each and every individual life.

But the cat is out of the bag now, and I guarantee you that you would never be able to shut down fertility clinics in the USA, nor convince infertile couples not to use this technique for conception.  It's like the birth control pill.  There's no turning back.

What concerns me is that the opposition to stem cell research does not (at least publicly) include opposition to IVF, and that is decieving and inconsistant.  If all these people who say that they are against stem cell research had to consider the IVF dilemma, they may have to re-think their positions. 

Scientists are not in labs "creating" life just to use for research, they are using the leftover embryos from IVF, that will otherwise perish (or perhaps live on forever) in freezers.

And, as usual, when these questions get put into real life situations, the answers are not so clear.  My awakening came when I realized that it was accepted for infertile women to discard embryos, but a 14 year old pregnant girl would be condemned for doing the same thing. 

Why this difference in society's reaction?
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
The discussions surrounding stem cell research do not mention in-vitro fertilization.  From my understanding the majority of embryos used in this research come from the "left-over" eggs fertilized during in-vitro fertilization procedures. 

I have not once seen in the secular media (and only rarely in Catholic media) articles discussing the morality of in-vitro fertilization.   Yet this procedure seems to have widespread acceptance in the American mainstream. 
James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
While I disagree with using the law to protect grant seekers from more competition, per se, the problem is not with the ruling but with the underlying law - which confuses a pre-Gastrulation blastocyst with a developing embryo.

The part of the blastocyst that is destroyed to harvest stem cells becomes the afterbirth. Indeed, stem cell research shows that after harvesting, such cells are no different ontologically than adult cells - except for the fact that cells that have not gone through gastrulation may not be viable in the first place. The value of this research is not the cells themselves, but the process by which eventual therapeutic cloning can take place in order to go from extracted DNA to a whole organ or nerve fiber. Of course, use of organ cartilage and adult stem cells seems to do this adequately anyway, so therapeutic cloning does not appear to be necessary. As to the ethics of this, it’s not a child until it is an organism, with differentiation, bodily integrity (meaning if you remove a cell, you lose an adult structure), influence from the genes of both parents, and no possibility that the genes from a non-human parent are effecting development. That point is gastrulation, not fertilization.

I suspect that the underlying law will be changed shortly.
Bill Collier
8 years 7 months ago
I'll try not to repeat the entire content of our exchange, Michael, in response to Dr. Byrnes's article on stem cells in America, but ethical protection for embryos doesn't attach when there is a "child" as you define it in your post. The only logical and workable marker for ethical protection is fertilization, at which time, or shortly thereafter, two human gametes have united and formed a human being with a unique genetic complement that has human and personal dignity.

IMO it's nothing but hubris when a scientist blames those opposed to destructive ESCR for impeding scientific research. Such complaints are nothing more than appeals for support for the end justifying the means. No matter how sympathetic we may be for a person with a life-threatening affliction, it is wrong to kill one human being, no matter its microscopic size, to save another human being.

I do agree with you on one issue, howver. The underlying law-i.e., the Dickey-Wicker Amendment-will likely "be changed shortly." That will be a sad day.           
Bill Collier
8 years 7 months ago

You're right there is little discussion about in vitro fertilization. I'll give you my viewpoint on in vitro fertilization, but it's likely one that is unpopular, even among some Catholics. I think the Church's stand on artificial reproduction is the correct one, yet I would be more sympathetic to in vitro fertilization if in vitro specialists were to limit each in vitro attempt to the fertilization and attempted implantation of one fertilized egg at a time. It's the "spares" that are created that sometimes lead to the culling of in vitro-produced embryos in a mother's womb, and it is the spares that are frozen for future implantation attempts, that may or may ever take place, that have created the "leftover" issue underlying destructive ESCR. Moreover, it's not as if the number of leftover embryos has become fixed. Their numbers are being augmented day by day, and that's a secondary reason why I am unpersuaded by the argument that unused embryos should be therefore be sacrificed for the purpose of stem cell research.         
Liam Richardson
8 years 7 months ago
Regarding the leftover embryo issue: it's a function of the "efficiency" dictated by America's peculiar health insurance system - in Europe, where there is public health insurance, my understanding is that fewer embryos are created as a matter of policy.

It should also be noted that the destruction of an embryo for utilitarian purpose is probably a double evil as compared to abortion. There is no moral or ethical right from one human being to the essential organs or tissues of another human being.  At least until recently....
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
Mr./Ms. Collier (Bill?) - thanks for your response to my questions about IVF and stem cell research.  I agree with you, in theory, that the Catholic Church's stand on reproduction is the correct on.   It sounds ''right''.  But in real life, I'm not so sure.  (Life has a way of muddying the ''correct'' answer, at least in my experience.)

There are now more than 400,000 embryos resulting from IVF that have been frozen and stored.  Only 3% (11,000) of the ''owners'' (parents) of these embryos have not released them to be used for stem cell research.  Some of the rest will be used for future implantation, but the vast majority will be frozen eternally.

Is this better than using them for research? 

In practice, we can all see the beauty of science helping an infertile couple conceive a child - and we are thrilled when it works.  I know two (very Catholic) young couples who have recently concieved children this way.

Yet we are adamant that the unused embryos not be ''used'' for research, but rather, in respect for ''life'', they be frozen eternally.

I used to be a lot more sure about the ''correct'' answers than I am now.

For most all of my life I have been staunchly against abortion. It was a black and white issue. I can remember a discussion while I was in college where I argued against abortion. I was unmovable, abortion could never be justified.

Here I am almost 60 years old and now I’m not sure anymore. It was the in-vitro fertilization issue that made me realize that, in some cases, it just might be the woman’s call. I feel kind of selfish admitting that until I could see myself in a situation of making that call, that I realized that other women might have that right as well.

For most of the years of my marriage my husband and I were trying to conceive a child. And though we did adopt a baby who has been everything we could ever want in a child, the desire to conceive was very deep in us. At the time, the in-vitro fertilization technique was not as successful as it is now, and was quite expensive. But I know that if it had been more affordable, I would have tried it. Every month I was mourning the child that would never be - 2 cells that couldn’t mate up - and I would have easily been able to justify making a couple of extra embryos in a test tube in the hope that one would result in a child for us. In my mind, we were losing potential babies every month. The only difference was that the test tube embryos would have been mated cells and the ones that we were losing were unmated.

But - this is exactly what early stage abortion is. Discarding embryos - an ova and a sperm that have mated.

If I thought that I could decide to discard embryos for the sake of conceiving a baby for us, how could I tell a 14 year old girl that she could not discard her embryo for the sake of her own life?

Embryos will, within a woman’s body, become a person. But are they persons when they are just a few cells?

At one time, I said yes, but now I don’t know anymore. I know that there are situations in which viable babies are aborted for no more reason than that they are not wanted, and this does, indeed, seem terribly wrong. There are also situations, like the 9 year old who was raped by her father and pregnant with twins, where requiring her to carry the babies to term seems like even more abuse.

The immorality of abortion seems somehow tied to sexuality, and this concerns me. Why is there not the outcry against in-vitro fertilization? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of anyone protesting before a fertility clinic.
Jim McCrea
8 years 7 months ago
Beth:  your words are some of the best I have read on this matter yet!  It took courage and humility to relate your personal efforts in achieving parenthood.  Thank you.
Bill Collier
8 years 7 months ago

It definitely would be a Sisyphean task to roll back even some of the procedures currently available in fertility clinics, and I have no illusions about such a task. But the issue of destructive ESCR, and abortion, too, is more a hearts and minds issue than a legal issue. Hearts and minds issues are important on an individual level, of course, but they need at least a groundswell of public perception before social change comes about. It's fair to say that there is hardly a ripple as to most aspects of IVF on the public's radar. But I don't mind being a Don Quixote tilting at windmills when I think a moral issue has to be addressed.

I understand what you are saying about the fact that an abundant supply of IVF-created spares are available and that they should be used for research instead of being maintained in suspended animation. Influential Christian bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender agrees with you on this point. He's opposed to IVF, but he believes, reluctantly, that leftover embryos can be used for ESCR. I'm afraid that I can't get to where you and Meilaender are ethically. My problem is that there shouldn't have been IVF leftovers created in the first place, and allowing destructive ESCR on such embryos at least implicitly rationalizes and ratifies the creation of leftovers. Call me insensitive or whatever, but I think it is better to allow the leftovers to die naturally than to be killed by medical researchers. Each act of intentional destruction objectifies and devalues human life, both for the researcher and for a society focused solely on the utilitarian worth of the embryonic stem cells and hungry for life-saving (irony intended) results. I have no doubts that this would be a hard sell to most people, but that's how I feel.        
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
I didn't say that the leftover embryos should be used for research, Bill.  I'm just asking questions.  Is it better that we let them perish in the freezer?  I don't know.  What would the embryos want? (and what a strange question, as if an embryo could want something other than life?)

I'm actually more in agreement with you, they shouldn't have been made in the first place (though I admit that I might have been in a situation where I would have made some).

My problem is the inconsistency and deceptiveness of the stem cell argument.  It's messy, not clear at all, and biased.

I think that in the end, it has to come down to individual choice.  The woman who is pregnant (or not) has to make the decision as to the fate of these embryos.  And the rest of us have to respect that - her circumstances, her choice.  If we want to preach and teach the sacredness of life, we're going to have to start living it with one another first. 
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
Not to belabor this issue, but this, in a nutshell, is what I'm trying to say:

IVF is the issue behind the stem cell research discussion, but no one is talking about it.

The IVF embryos are being produced by the 100 thousand with no sign of letting up.  The mainstream public accepts this with little or no question.  The only opposition comes from the Catholic press, but few pay much attention. 

I know a few very devoutly religious families who have opted for IVF.  Their choice to perpetually freeze the embryos, rather than donate them to research, seems to be their "answer" to the moral question.

In fact, producing and then eternally freezing embryos and early stage abortion are essentially the same thing.  Yet the public response is entirely different.


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