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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 Many Christian ethicists try to ground their commitments on an increasingly outdated picture of nature and how nature works.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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