Posted on October 18, 2003
Doomed By Design
Scientists make self-destructive embryos
Advanced Cell Technology, the group of scientists who cloned a human embryo two years ago [See: Holy Smokescreen: Clone creators hide behind religion (2/21/02)], now claims to have developed a line of stem cells from a monkey embryo they created through a process called parthenogenesis. That is the term used to describe a type of reproduction by which an embryo is created from an egg which has essentially fertilized itself. Parthenogenesis occurs naturally among some kinds of insects, fish and lizards, but it is not natural among mammals, and it is considered unlikely that an embryonic mammal created through this process could ever survive until birth.
When an egg is ready to be fertilized, it carries only one set of chromosomes, because the other has been stripped away by a process of cell division called meiosis. Ordinarily, living cells reproduce through mitosis, in which the chromosomes in the original cell are replicated, so that when the cell splits, the new cell contains the same genes as the original. In meiosis, however, the original cell contains two identical sets of chromosomes, one of which is peeled away through division, so that each cell has only one set.
Before fertilization, the oocyte, or immature egg cell, divides into four through two divisions. The first division is done by meiosis, which creates two cells with one set of chromosomes apiece. Then, each of the two cells divides again, this time by mitosis, so that the result is four cells, each of them carrying one set of chromosomes. The one of these four cells that retains most of the cytoplasm is the ovum. The other three, far smaller cells, are typically absorbed back into the woman's body.
One type of parthenogenesis occurs when one of these smaller cells, carrying one set of chromosomes, re-enters the ovum and fertilizes it as a sperm would. Again, this is not known to take place in the reproduction of mammals, but if it did, it would always produce a female embryo, because no Y-chromosome is present. Among animals in which parthenogenesis is possible, however, it is sometimes the male which is produced by two of the same chromosome. It is in this way that a queen bee produces drones.
The procedure that the scientists at ACT are calling parthenogenesis differs from this, in that they seem to have suppressed the meiotic process, so that the fusion of the two cells would no longer be necessary. News reports of exactly how they accomplished this have been vague. Joannie Fischer wrote in the December 3rd, 2001 issue of U.S. News and World Report that "[a]n egg can't start dividing and forming an embryo until a sperm cell replaces the missing chromosomes. But [ACT scientist Jose] Cibelli tricked eggs into keeping copies of their chromosomes, so they could be spurred to develop." It appears as if Cibelli and his associates have chemically influenced an oocyte into retaining both sets of its chromosomes until it matured into an ovum, and was therefore pre-fertilized.
Since this is not the natural way that mammals reproduce, it only stands to reason that there would be significant flaws. According to Wake Forest professor Kathleen Grant, who co-authored the paper that announced the experiment, an embryo created in this manner will not develop a placenta, so even if it were implanted, it would have no way of receiving nourishment from its mother.
ACT has not yet created a human embryo in this way, but it has tried, and there's little reason to believe it won't succeed eventually. So how, one might wonder, would scientists justify the deliberate creation of a human embryo that is doomed from the very first second of its existence? It's actually quite simple. All they have to do is to manipulate their terminology, by redefining "embryo" in such a way that it excludes the creatures on which they're experimenting.
A September 23rd article on Wired News argued that ACT's parthenogenic experiments are ethically innocent, but that they are being denied taxpayer funding by semantic inaccuracies. "The process resulted not in an embryo," the story says, "but a bundle of cells similar to a pre-embryo, although the cells could never survive even if implanted in the primate's womb."
This ostensible attempt at a clarification immediately invalidates itself with its use of the term "pre-embryo." That term is a marketing gimmick, designed to sell destructive experimentation on human embryos to an apprehensive American public, and has no legitimate scientific application whatsoever. An embryo is created instantaneously. Once a human ovum is fertilized, a human embryo exists. It does not need to graduate from a lower link on the scientific food chain.
If scientists artificially fertilize a human ovum by mimicking a reproductive process that happens elsewhere in nature, then they will have created a human embryo. It would be a living human being, albeit one that is likely doomed to an extremely brief existence. But there seems to be a belief among bioethicists that they can deny such a being entry into the human race, based on the circumstances of its creation, or the intention of those who created it.
In fact, University of Pennsylvania bioethecist Paul Root Wolpe tells us this directly. Wired quotes him explaining, "The term embryo came from a time when there was only one way that embryos were created, and only one place that embryos lived, and that's how they were thought about. That's how our political and religious views of embryos were developed, but those days are gone."
This is an updated variation of the "choice" argument made by abortion advocates, only in this case the choosers are the scientists. The proposition is that a newly created human being has value if and only if the chooser wants it to live. If a human embryo is created artificially in a laboratory for the purpose of being killed for research, it has no value. Therefore the chooser claims a right, through the strategic use of language, to cause it to not be a human being.
A similar argument has been made in defense of scientists' creation of cross-species hybrid embryos. In November of 1998, ACT revealed that it had implanted the nucleus of a human somatic cell in the egg of a cow, in hopes of deriving human stem cells from it. Although the nucleic DNA in such a hybrid is human, it must communicate with the other animal's mitochondrial DNA in the cytoplasm of the egg in order to grow. It is not known how long an embryo created in this way is capable of surviving, or what kind of deformities it might develop if it did.
The idea was so grotesque that President Clinton, who never else during his presidency showed any concern for embryonic human life, expressed his disapproval in a letter to his National Bioethics Advisory Commission, in which he wrote that he was "deeply troubled by this news of experiments involving the mingling of human and non-human species." The NBAC (since replaced by President Bush's Council on Bioethics), assured Clinton that he needn't be concerned.
"Does the fusion of a human cell and an egg from a non-human animal result in a human embryo?" NBAC chairman Harold T. Shapiro rhetorically asked in his response. "The common understanding of a human embryo includes, at least, the concept of an organism at its earliest stage of development, which has the potential, if transferred to a uterus, to develop in the normal course of events into a living human being."
The deceptive intent of his answer is apparent from that statement alone. For starters, one should be suspicious of any man of science who subordinates facts to "the common understanding" -- however he determines what that is. Tellingly, his answer indicates that even "an organism at its earliest stage of development" which was unambiguously human would not qualify for his definition of a "living human being."
Shapiro concluded that "[i]f this line of research does not give rise to human embryos, we do not believe that totally new ethical issues arise. We note that scientists routinely conduct non-controversial and highly beneficial research that involves combining material from human and other species." As long as hybrid embryos are being created for the purpose of being destroyed, they will never be demonstrated to meet Shapiro's definition of a "human embryo." Therefore, he downgraded them to "material," which can ethically be used for whatever utilitarian purposes the scientists can imagine.
This method of experimentation is apparently gaining acceptance. Last month, a group of Chinese scientists claimed to have created a human hybrid embryo with the use of a rabbit egg. Reactions to the news have been heavy on scientific skepticism but light on moral condemnation. Robert Lanza of ACT said of the alleged breakthrough, "It sounds a little too good to be true."
Advanced Cell Technology may or may not be lagging behind the Chinese in the hybrid race, but it is in the vanguard of another bizarre concept in embryonic experimentation. According to Fischer's U.S. News story, the Massachusetts-based laboratory has patented a method of producing an embryo by transplanting the cytoplasm from an ovum into a somatic cell. This is apparently what ACT scientist Robert Lanza was referring to when he said, "Research advances are making all cells 'embryonic'." Dartmouth bioethicist Ronald Green, enlisted as an advisor to ACT, justifies the experiments on this basis. "To commit ourselves morally to protecting every living cell in the body would be insane," he says, implying that committing ourselves to protecting live human embryos makes equally little sense.
These people expect us to believe that a cell of skin, blood or bone tissue is no different from an embryo, just because they can turn it into one by injecting it with embryonic cytoplasm. Absent their meddling, it is absolutely impossible for a somatic cell to become an embryo; therefore the equivalence they draw between the two is a lie.
What they're really attempting is to approximate the cloning process, but in reverse. In cloning, which is also known as "somatic cell nuclear transfer," the nucleus of the somatic cell is transplanted into the cytoplasm of the ovum. What ACT is now trying is to transfer the cytoplasm from the ovum into a somatic cell, which already contains a nucleus with both sets of chromosomes.
This new being would be identical to a cloned embryo with one exception: the cell membrane. A mammalian ovum has a specialized membrane called the zona pellucida, which regulates its permeability and prevents it from implanting prematurely. Yet the ACT study treats cell membranes as if they were as interchangeable as Tupperware containers. The membranes of skin cells lack those peculiar characteristics of the zona pellucida, and they might not even be competent to physically support the intense activity within a growing embryo. No such complications would faze the scientists conducting the study, however, because it is the embryo's presumed inability to survive that justifies their declaring it not to be an embryo at all, but just material for experimentation.
More outlandish experiments are sure to follow. Now that scientists and bioethicists have argued that moral objections to destructive embryonic research should be lifted by the embryos' inability to sustain themselves, they will continue to create self-destructive, human, embryonic freaks in every way imaginable.
Since embryos created by the methods discussed here would be, by design, defective, the researchers' claims about their potential value in treating diseases should be greeted with the utmost cynicism. To what degree, one must wonder, do they want the defective embryos for their own scientific value, and to what degree do they only want pawns in a public relations offensive? If their experiments win society's endorsement on the basis that the embryos are going to die anyway, then it won't be long before the bioethicists do a one-eighty, and tell us that destroying perfectly healthy embryos is actually no different at all.
Why should people with deadly and painful diseases have to rely on damaged embryos, they'll ask, when healthy embryos are no larger, no more developed, and ultimately, no more human? Our society, by then already corrupted, would have no rational basis to refuse them. We cannot propose that human beings have a consistent, inherent value, while at the same time endorsing the killing of even those microscopic defectives who are unaware of their own doomed existence. The utilitarian philosophers who pervade the field of bioethics know this, and can be counted on to use that knowledge, when it suits their purposes.
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