Last year, Nature magazine reported scientists had discovered a way to produce large numbers of living beings that resemble primitive human embryos. These synthetic embryos, known as embryoids, raise extremely significant ethical issues.
Catholic teaching on biomedical ethics says direct experimentation on human embryos is barred, as is the use of embryonic stem cells (Catechism of the Catholic Church). With the latest development on embryoids, does the new technique fall afoul of either Catholic principle?
(Asked his views on the new technology, Catholic bioethicist Father Tad Pacholczyk agreed the ethical issue hinges in part on the question of whether embryoids constitute embryos in their full developmental potential or not, and there would remain debate over that question.)
First lets ask, what are embryoids? In short, these are embryonic stem cells that have been coaxed into developing like an early embryo in order to study how the embryo grows and develops. The motivation behind this research is to study gestational periods not currently permitted for experimentation embryonic growth beyond 14 days.
If this research doesnt actually require embryos and can be generated from other living things while still providing the same development path, this would be a true breakthrough enabling us to reduce the use of actual embryos in experimentation. However, there is a catch.
The embryonic stem cells being used are the same ones that have been used over and over by many scientists for dubious scientific reasons. Although the Nature article shies away from their true nature and the need to scale up this development to the degree expected, this would drastically increase demand for them. The primary source is currently aborted children, a very large and serious ethical concern. So, while the is of embryoids is touted as an advance, it is most certainly not.
There are additional ethical issues regarding the possibilities that these stem cells can develop as an actual embryo. This could be a revolutionary change, but it is not clear to me that this is in fact the case, and much research would have to be done in order to prove this. What this would entail is an advance in human cloning as the new human embryo would carry the identical genes to the source of the embryonic stem cells. In essence, the children killed through abortion would be cloned.
The other question raised concerns adult stem cells. Generally, advances in adult stem cells have been more successful than those using embryonic stem cells in clinical trials and are in accord with what the Church teaches. Would it be possible to coax adult stem cells to develop in this manner? If so, what are the consequences for this type of research?
It would be a staggering development if this were so, because it would permit mass human cloning based on the manipulation of adult stem cells. This has a variety of ethical consequences that Im not sure this article has the scope to touch, least of all being the ethics surrounding the commodification of human life and the abuse that such technology could entail with respect to both genetic manipulation and so called breeding for stock.
If this technology does what it claims it can do (and this is a big if, many advancements have been shown not to be), it seems that this would fall afoul of the Catechism regarding the separation of the procreative from the unitive aspects of sex. If these cells can and do grow as embryos do, this would be yet another form of procreation similar to the use of in-vitro fertilization. But we are not quite there yet, and research would have to be conducted to prove that this was in fact the case.
However, the fact that this research does use and harvests embryonic stem cells from aborted babies renders this research invalid according to the principles of the Catholic Church. Whatever further developments this approach garners may or may not incur other problems, but it is very important that Catholics know and understand the process being used with the science of embryoids.
It is also important that they understand that while it is unknown whether embryoids have a development limit, we are bound to respect them as if they are embryos due to the ethical principle of primum non nocere. If we are uncertain as to the true status of an entity, then we must treat it as if it were the entity it could be.
Calling embryoids artificial embryos is a lie because the research requires the use of embryonic stem cells, which are most certainly not artificial. If this research did forgo the use of embryonic stem cells, it would be another very significant development, but this research does not do this and it is important to understand this in light of claims to the contrary.
In short, this development needs careful examination to determine what the limits of embryoid growth are and whether this growth does or does not have a limit. This would establish the true nature of the embryoid and whether there is anything that distinguishes an embryoid from an embryo.
As is, this particular research and this approach is contrary to Catholic teachings barring the use of embryonic stem cells. It may also fall afoul of Catholic principles concerning other reproductive technologies, like IVF, but that is at present unknown.
Sean Ollech is a Prince George writer and B.C. Catholic contributor.
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