Embryos from Stem Cells?
By Ted Peters
May 1, 2003
A startling achievement has just been announced regarding the creation of
embryos from pluirpotent stem cells in mice. [Karen Hubner, et.al.,
"Derivation of Oocytes from Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells," Science
May 1, 2003 (10.1126/science.1083452)]. If this could be accomplished using
human Embryonic Stem Cells, what might this mean for Christian bioethics?
This scientific research is like a cannon ball fired across the bow of
Christian bioethics. 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on an increasingly outdated picture of nature and how nature works.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--that is,
an event of fertilization or conception upon which the entire structure of
protecting human rights is built. Enter first cloning (Somatic Cell Nuclear
Transfer), and now, in principle at least, nature might allow us to give birth
to babies whose DNA comes from only one parent, or even a stranger to both
parents. Enter next this reported experiment with mouse embryonic stem cells
that become embryos, and now it appears nature just might allow us to create
babies without use of gametes, either eggs or sperm. What's next? I forecast
that future scientists will attempt cytoplasmic reprogramming--that is, they
will attempt to take a healthy somatic cell, perhaps from skin, return it to
its pre-differentiated state, and then activate it as an embryo. This would
mean, finally, that any cell in our body is a potential baby.
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? If eggs can be
activated without fertilization, does God still impart an immortal soul? If
so, when? Looking ahead, if in the future we make babies without use of
gametes--without either egg or sperm--then just when does this embryo gain
morally protectable personhood and why? The old argument based on natural law
needs a new paint job if not a trade in for a new model.
Christian ethicists are to be commended for their dedication to protect the
dignity of yet-to-be-born persons, and to protect the dignity of all human
beings especially when they are unable to protect themselves. Yet, the old
arguments understandably based on pre-scientific 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.
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