The First Therapeutic Use of Embryonic Stem Cells

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Embryonic Stem Cells. (A) shows hESCs. (B) sho...

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GERON Corporation is carrying out research injecting embryonic stem cells into the spinal cord of a man with spinal cord injuries. The hope is that new nerve tissue will grow and repair the spinal cord. The company’s stock rose over five dollars a share today, which is no surprise given the revolutionary nature of this research.

However revolutionary such research is, embryonic stem cells are removed from human embryos in a process that kills the embryo. This is, as I have argued in another post, the taking of innocent human life–and human personhood cannot be separated from the human organism. Now a utilitarian in ethics who focuses on “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (or “for the greatest number of sentient beings,” depending on the utilitarian) most likely would support this research if in fact it leads to helping patients with spinal cord injuries. Such patients might be able to recover from paralysis and walk again. Many Americans, who tend to think in both utilitarian and pragmatic terms, will support embryonic stem cell research if it leads to therapeutically useful results. Should this procedure work, parents of paralyzed children will demand its use. Some of these parents may be those who previously opposed embryonic stem cell research. Supporters of the research will ask, “What if your wife or husband, mother, father, or child couldn’t walk? Wouldn’t you want this treatment for them?” As with another morally problematic procedure, solid organ donation from “brain dead” individuals, the majority of people in pro-life circles may change their tune and support embryonic stem cell research. There will be a few hold-outs who, like me, believe that goodness is not dependent on consequences, but I predict they will be very few. I hope that if embryonic stem cell therapy turns out to be successful that I am wrong about the pro-life community surrendering to utilitarianism. But given their past performance on the issue of brain death, I am not optimistic.

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.