John F. Kavanaugh

A friend recently asked me whether the Catholic Church, in its opposition to embryonic stem cell research, is committing a folly equal to its condemnation of Galileo. An apt question: the dawn of genetics is as revolutionary as the idea that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo’s tool was the telescope. Ours is the microscope.

One might be awed by one’s cells as much as by the stars. We each have trillions of them. And each of these cells, except for the special cases of some blood cells and reproductive cells, carries in its nucleus a model of our entire personal genome, our DNA. (For all of our individual uniqueness, we share 99.9 percent of this genome with every other human being.) The nucleus of the cell is surrounded by cytoplasm with its own little organs, called organelles, and finally an enclosing membrane that both protects the cell and allows for interactions with the outside.

Most cells of any animal could, with the help of special chemical procedures, develop into a genetic replica of the whole animal. Thus in the famous case of Dolly, the nucleus of one cell from an adult lamb’s udder was injected into another sheep’s reproductive cell (with its own nucleus removed from the membrane and cytoplasm) and prompted to replicate on its own. At the earliest stages of development, the cells of this new embryo, like cells in embryos conventionally conceived, are pluri-potent. They are called stem cells because they have the potency to develop into multiple kinds of tissue and organs, which in fact, they do as the embryo develops. That very development restricts and channels the cells, as if they somehow forget how to make a whole organism and start forming differentiated neural, heart, liver or skin tissue. Thus, embryonic stem cells are powerful instruments not only for research, but possibly for curing neural, heart and liver diseases.

It has become clear, however, that not all our specialized or adult cells forget their pluri-potential possibilities. Muscle, brain and blood therapies have been developed from umbilical cord blood, placentas and adult stem cells in bone marrow, brain and fat tissue. In these procedures there is no embryo involved, whether left over from reproductive clinics, or created in a cloning process. There is also no problem of immunity rejection, since the cells are donated by the patient rather than an unknown embryo.

But this suggests another option. In order to prevent immune rejection in embryonic stem cells, some scientists propose that the best therapy would be to create an embryo from the genetic clone of the patient. If I have liver disease, for example, why not use a nuclear transfer by injecting the nucleus of one of my cells into the cytoplasm of a denucleated donor ovum, create an embryonic clone, and then harvest its stem cells?

This procedure is now being done, not with government funds, but by the questionable gift of the free market and the belief that there should be no restraints on what we can or want to do. Advanced Cell Technology Inc., of Worcester, Mass., has been paying women donors for eggs to be used in therapeutic cloning. The company president claims that they are not trying to clone people. It is more accurate to say that at this time, they are not planning to bring any cloned human embryo to term.

Is this something like creating a human in order to destroy it? It is. The only reason any embryonic stem cell is of interest to science is that it is human and it is alive. The whole present debate is belying, once again, the feeble claim that we do not know when a living human being begins. We know when it begins. That is why we have been tempted to become its primary predators.

In previous columns I have offered evidence for my belief that you and I began our human and personal careers at conception. At that moment there was an entirely new and unique genome launched into a self-developing life. We may have been a cluster of pluri-potent cells at one stage of our existence, but there was a unity in us, not only of the DNA nucleus, but the environment of cytoplasm, maternal mitochrondrial DNA and those organelles that we still have not quite figured out. For this reason, while favoring research on adult stem cells, I oppose any discarding of extra embryos or creating them to cannibalize them.

It is an extreme position, perhaps, highly vulnerable to challenge. But those who think we ought to move forward in our treatment of embryos as mere objects to be exploited will have to face questions of their own:

If anything we can do is ethically permissible for a good enough reason, will there be any limitations to our wills?

Shall we try to make multiple clones of desirable people?

Why not, especially if someone has the money and the desire?

Since at the present time, even fully developed human fetuses are not as protected by law as are laboratory rats, why not use these fetuses, their reproductive cells and their organs to heal our tragic wounds?

Why not create hybrids who might be excluded from our species but are close enough that we can farm them for spare parts?

If we have total reproductive freedom and control, and if embryos and fetuses are nonpersons, why be prohibited from aborting offspring who have the undesirable sex, sex-orientation, markers for height and hair and skin tone? If you restrict such a personal choice, on what grounds do you do it?

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research may be likened to the futile and foolish condemnation of Galileo. Then again, it may be bold resistance to the suicide of a species.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

Robert E. McNulty | 1/26/2007 - 9:40am
John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., in “Stem Cell Challenges” (9/17), has raised some interesting challenges to unlimited stem cell research.

However, there are certain technical errors in his essay that may be meaningful. One is the implication that individuals develop from the moment of conception. I am sure Father Kavanaugh will agree that the possibility of twinning must have passed before this claim of individuality is made.

Second, in somatic cell nuclear transfer, the somatic cell (not its nucleus) is not injected into but is placed next to the denucleated egg. The resulting fused cell and its immediate descendants are believed to be totipotent. They may, under the proper conditions, form a blastocyst. Cells from the inner cells mass of this blastocyst might be used to form pluripotent stem cell lines.

Are the pre-blastocyst cells resulting from somatic cell nuclear transfer to be considered a human embryo? Do they look like one? No sperm has been used in the process and no conventional egg, so some major ethical thinking is required, which I have not yet seen.