Sperm and Egg from Stem Cells

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A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 ...

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What if sperm and eggs could be manufactured by scientists from any cell in the body? In an article by Fiona MacRae in the October 29, 2009 issue of Mail Online, she describes a recent Stanford University study in which sperm and eggs were produced from embryonic stem cells. The researchers want to move on to producing sperm and eggs from other cells.

This study raises the possibility that such manufactured sperm could join with a manufactured egg to conceive an embryo, and then the embryo could be implanted in a woman, who could then give birth to a healthy baby. Medical ethicists who advocate absolute autonomy would argue that there is nothing wrong with this. If someone wishes to have a child this way (for example, a homosexual couple), why not? If an egg could be coaxed out of a male’s stem cell or a sperm out of a female’s stem cells, the theoretically, a lesbian couple or a male homosexual couple could have children genetically related to both partners. Or, it would be possible for a man to be both a father and a mother (genetically) or a woman a father and mother (genetically). But in a world in which we all are our own lawgivers, and have the power of self-determination, why not?

However, as ethicist Leon Kass has long pointed out, questions about reproduction are not questions about our private desires. They reach to the very heart of human and family identity. Even adopted children sometimes struggle with their identity. Would it not be more of a struggle for the child who is genetically related to one father-mother? And is the male-female family relationship really just a matter of choice rather than a matter of nature? Is a child more than a product of manufactured sperm and a manufactured egg? Isn’t there something wrong (as Kass notes concerning another issue, reproductive human cloning) for a child to be a manufactured product?

Human beings are biological creatures who are the products of evolution (although I believe that God guides the evolutionary process, this discussion is neutral on that point). Evolution has led to the development of biological creatures who are sexually differentiated, who are naturally social, and who naturally come together as men and as women into some kind of family arrangement. Children arise due to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, normally (and I do mean “normally” as a normative and not only a descriptive term) in the context of a family relationship–a husband and wife. (Even polygamous or polyandrous societies have stable family units). Exceptions make bad law, and this is the case in ethics as well as in the legal system. To form “family units” with manufactured sperm and egg in the context either of homosexual relationships or in the context of one person wanting to have a child genetically related to him or her is against the natural ends or goals of human beings re reproduction. Questions about inheritance, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members are not trivial issues. They are issues that would involve real children with real feelings. Human beings are not their own masters; any practice that violates human nature will eventually be destructive of society. If the technology of producing sperm and eggs via stem cells is expanded to the point that children are born as a result, this “expansion of freedom” will only result in a more confused and chaotic society in which family relationships become twisted to the point of becoming mere matters of choice.


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Bureaucracy cover art

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Susan, 55, has worked for a corporation for thirty years. Most of the time, that corporation was small, and even upper management was able to visit most branches of the business. For years, her vacations had to be approved only by her immediate supervisor.

One day, Susan gives her request for three days’ vacation to her supervisor’s new secretary. The secretary glances at her request, returns it to Sue, and gives her another form. “You need to fill out this form for vacation requests. They must be approved by both your supervisor and your senior manager. Susan protests. “In the past I’ve always given my request to my supervisor.” The secretary waves her off and says, “No paperwork, no vacation.” Susan walks away, furious, feeling powerless, and almost in tears–but she fills out the form anyway.

Most of us, if not all of us, must deal with bureaucracy in some areas of our lives. We may work for a large organization with a complex bureaucracy. We may have to deal with banks, electric and water companies, and other organizations that provide the necessities of life. Most of us find ourselves frustrated at bureaucracy in our lives. Why is that the case? Is it just a matter of the time it takes to go through person after person on the phone before we find help? Is it a matter of the loads of paperwork we have to fill out? In most cases, those reasons are adequate. But when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy in our workplace, as in Susan’s situation, there may be a more fundamental reason.

Most people recognize the need for complex authority structures as organizations grow. There must be a clear hierarchy and clear procedures for business to be accomplished; otherwise an organization would function poorly, and perhaps fail. But there are cases in which a bureaucratic structure can interfere with good employer-employee relations. The problem is a matter of trust.

No employee wants to work for a company she does not trust. Corporations require some level of trust to encourage loyality and hard work. But a corporation, without being naive, should trust its employees. Management should not assume that the employees are essentially lazy and “out to get” the employer (as in Theory X management). This will only result in a hostile work force.

Adding layers of bureaucracy, especially with a lack of good communication with employees, sends a clear message to employees: “We do not trust you.” For example, in Susan’s situation, upper management apparently changed policy on vacation requests without informing lower-level employees. Susan may think (and she might be right) that such action reveals a fundamental distrust of employees (“we’ll do this without consulting our workforce; this is an executive decision, and the workers can find out about the new policy as they make vacation requests”). Such action may also reflect a belief by management that employees will take advantage of their vacation time.

Now Susan may be wrong about all this. Management’s decision might be related to a desire to know when workers will be on vacation company-wide in order to discern patterns and make appropriate plans. And the lack of communcation might be due to the slowness of communication in any large bureaucracy. Even if that is the case, we can understand why Susan is upset–and why we would most likely be upset in similar situations.

Correspondence to NATURE re “Delimiting Death”

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more brains

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There was an excellent editorial in NATURE, the distinguished science journal, admitting the difficulties with brain death criteria for human death. I sent a letter to the editor in reply, but it was rejected (understandably, given the number of letters the journal must receive). It is posted below:

To the Editor:

The editorial in Nature (“Delimiting Death”)1 refers to the serious problems with the “whole brain death” criterion defended by the 1981 U. S. President’s Commission Report. The editorial specifically discusses continued brain function in patients declared “brain dead.” This implies that “all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” have not ceased, and therefore the entire brain is not dead. Yet the editorial claims that physicians “are usually obeying the spirit…of the law” when they pronounce patients with continuing brain function dead. The justification for this view is that death “is not a phase transition whereby a person stops being alive and becomes dead in an instant. It is a long process during which systems, networks and cells gradually disintegrate.”
However, the editorial also affirms that “[a]t some point, the person is no longer there, and can never be made to return” (italics mine). Now the editorial cannot have it both ways: it cannot both affirm death to be a process and then claim that at some point the person is gone. Dying is a process, but not death itself. One is either a person at time t or not a person at time t; there is no state in-between. The possibility that “brain dead” individuals may be alive underlines the morally problematic nature of physicians’ declaring a patient “brain dead” and removing the patient’s vital organs for transplant. Killing “brain dead” donors for their organs, no matter how physiologically impaired they may be, places physicians in the role of killing patients, violating their fundamental duty of nonmaleficence. The fact that such killing is done to save others does not magically change killing a human person into a noble moral act. Nor does the consent of the donor’s family and the donor’s prior altruism make an unethical act ethical.
The editorial finally suggests that the information about brain death be carefully disseminated, so that the general public does not gain full information about the current debate, lest the current organ shortage be worsened. Such withholding of the truth from people who are considering donating their organs is unethical; if organ donation from the brain dead involves killing patients, such a practice should be abandoned, and no utilitarian justification is sufficient to justify it.

1. Delimiting death. Nature 461, 570 (1 October 2009), doi:10.1038/461570a

Michael Potts, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Methodist University