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Definition of the Embryo: Time to Be Clear, Very Clear

It can’t be confined just to biological sciences alone

UPDATE — June 16: Pat Fagan follows up on his earlier reporting about ANT OAR and Sen. Santorum’s bill on stem-cell reasearch.

What is an embryo? This is a basic biological question that involves more than mere biology. Unfortunately the definition, rather than getting clearer, may be getting fuzzier in the current bioethics debate that is raging from the halls of Congress to the battleground state of Missouri.

The defining of the word embryo, however, cannot be confined just to biological sciences alone. Rather, the philosophical premises (their conception of the nature of man) held by scientists come into play. Some scientists are side-stepping the human implications of the term ‘embryo’ by substituting technical terms such as ‘blastocyst’ or ‘totipotent.’ Such Orwellian distortions by scientists who are utilitarian is no surprise but what is surprising is that some right-to-life advocates may be taken with a similar strategy.

Some right-to-life proponents of a technique called ‘altered nuclear transfer’ or ‘oocyte assisted reprogramming’ (ANT-OAR) claim that this technique does not really create an embryo but rather directly creates embryonic stem cells. However, this technique is remarkably similar to human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer). In somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus of a body cell is placed into an egg that has had its chromosomes removed. This creates a cloned embryo. All agree on this.

The ANT-OAR process on the other hand first genetically engineers a body cell nucleus and then uses that altered nucleus to replace the nucleus of a human egg. What is in contention is whether this creates a cloned, albeit defective, embryo because the genetic engineering makes this ‘embryo’ incapable of developing the tissues that form the placenta, which is necessary for the embryo’s survival in the womb. Proponents of ANT-OAR argue that because the defective ‘embryo’ cannot ever develop into a child, then it is not an embryo. While it may never become a born child, that does not make it a non-embryo. There are convents of nuns dedicated to taking care of children who look most unhuman, even are monster-like, but are real human beings nonetheless. They die early for they cannot develop into mature adults. The situation with these ANT-OAR engineered cells may be analogous, and is no basis on which to define what constitutes an embryo or not.

Defining such a cloned ANT-OAR defective embryo as a ‘non-embryo’ does not necessarily make it so. Proponents have a test to see if it is an embryo – if it survives it is, if it does not it is not. By such a test the deformed children above, cared for in special convents, would not be human. But they are. Just as we should not define the children cared for by the nuns as ‘non-human,’ neither should we define these cloned creatures as ‘non-embryos’.

Also defining such a cloned ANT-OAR defective embryo as a ‘non-embryo’ has the potential to promote the practice of defining other embryos as ‘non-embryos.’ Sadly, this is already happening. This fall, Missourians will vote on a ballot initiative that purports to ban human cloning, and many who will vote for such a ban may think they are protecting human life. But the initiative does no such thing, because it redefines cloning as the process of implanting ‘anything other than the product of fertilization of an egg of a human female by a sperm of a human male for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy that could result in the creation of a human fetus, or the birth of a human being.’ Hence, under this definition of ‘cloning’, cloning is actually permitted—if not officially sanctioned—but it becomes a crime to let a cloned human embryo live. Thus we would not mind creating them; we just don’t want them to live. Moreover, since a cloned embryo would not be easily distinguishable from other embryos, in practice preventing implantation would be difficult, if not impossible.

We need to slow down and have this definition thought through carefully so as not to make a mistake at this foundational stage of this development in applied science. When experts are so fuzzy there is no way that the lay voter can make a clear and well-informed decision.

How far can this fuzzy newspeak go? What about a ‘non-embryo’ that is genetically engineered to develop without a brain, but with functioning fetal organs? Is that a ‘non-embryo’ from which we are allowed to harvest organs? Such is the specter the human race could be facing with this strategy, and many could be led at this stage to think that this is totally compatible with honoring human nature and protecting the dignity of human beings.

In the politically charged debate over destructive human embryonic stem cell research, proponents of ANT-OAR cloning have found sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill. Federal funding for these kinds of experiments is being considered in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. While the intent of the authors of the legislation is to find an ethical means of producing human embryonic stem cells, these measures, upon further reflection, fail the ethical tests of many conservatives and progressives, and especially fail the test of clear thinking and clear language. Ordinary citizens need to be able to follow this debate. If it gets so technical that they cannot, then the entire nation can be hoodwinked. It is time to slow down.

How far can this go? ANT-OAR still requires large numbers of eggs to be extracted from women, at a significant risk to their health. Moreover, if this experiment were to be performed with human eggs and human cells, it would be the first sanctioned use of genetic engineering to redesign the human species should this really be a human embryo. Also, in fact, there is little research on the long-term effects of this genetic engineering on the functioning of the resultant embryonic stem cells.

It is a short step from working on ‘altered,’ cloned embryos to working on other cloned embryos. This danger of taking such steps is especially so when definitions are fuzzy and little understood.

‘Festine lente’ the old Latin adage is very much needed here. Hasten slowly. Debate and clarify again and again till it is all very clear and the layman understands it. Then the citizens will know what is at stake. At this stage very few have any idea of the momentous nature of what is potentially contained in these bills. On this issue politicians are laymen also, not specialists.

The right-to-life community, along with some liberal groups, has long championed the opposition to both human cloning and human genetic engineering that makes an object of a human person. It would be ironic if their support for ANT-OAR ended up with a redefining of the human embryo and a redesigning of the human species. Such is the danger. Festine lente.


UPDATE — June 16: Pat Fagan follows up on his earlier reporting about ANT OAR and Sen. Santorum’s bill on stem-cell reasearch.

The op-ed above was imprudently rushed with too little preparation in fact-checking and background research (and therein lies my fault) and as a result the language used was not only intemperate but, with hindsight, unjust. This has led to major difficulties for friends in the pro-life movement,

Three items are at issue. The first is Sen. Santorum’s bill that clears the way for funding of ethical stem cell research. The second is the work of those proposing the ANT OAR strategy for doing stem cell research. Third are the people involved in the development of ANT OAR.

On all three counts I was wrong, or wrongly imputed something.

First the Santorum bill in my judgment is totally pro-life and specifically prohibits any funding of any research that would create an embryo or harness embryo tissue in any way. It is, in essence, a restatement of the unquestionably pro-life Dickey-Wicker amendment that prohibits federal funding for research that destroy embryos, so it is hard to imagine why any pro-life person would object to it.

Second, the ANT OAR proposal was unjustly mischaracterized in the original piece with words such as, “Some scientists are side-stepping the human implications of the term ‘embryo’ by substituting technical terms such as ‘blastocyst’ or ‘totipotent.’ Such Orwellian distortions by scientists who are utilitarian is no surprise but what is surprising is that some right-to-life advocates may be taken with a similar strategy.”

While some people have concerns with ANT OAR, most notably David Schindler, Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Washington (click here for his critique of ANT OAR and with whom I am inclined to agree) it must be noted that those who worked out the ANT OAR proposal after long and deliberate study is a Who’s Who of the Pro-life Intellectual Movement, men who have labored constantly and delivered major pro-life victories in Congress, the court system, in the universities, and in the media (see the list of signatories at the links below). In consultation with pro-life scientists such as Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald of Georgetown University, Fr. Nic Austriaco of Providence College and stem cell researcher Markus Grompe of the Oregon Stem Cell Center, they worked hard to deliver what they are convinced totally avoids any danger to any human being at the zygote (1-cell human being) stage or any stage thereafter.

ANT OAR is a complex proposal by which the designers hope to deliver a pro-life way to deal with stem cells. In their joint statement on Human Cloning and "Altered Nuclear Transfer," the experts stated:

“ It is only by establishing a clear barrier against the misuse of this technology to create and mistreat fellow human beings that a decent society can pursue ANT-OAR in good conscience.”

In their earlier statement, “Production of Pluripotent Stem Cells by Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming,” which first delineated the ANT OAR proposal they stated:

“Our proposal is for initial research using only nonhuman animal cells. If, but only if, such research establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that oocyte assisted reprogramming can reliably be used to produce pluripotent stem cells without creating embryos, would we support research on human cells.”

The group went further. The initial ANT proposal looked to some like it would avoid embryo generation, but for them to be even more certain that a human embryo was not created, the group insisted on the OAR modification.

Third: the people involved, the signatories of the statements, to mention a few: Archbishop Myers of Newark, N.J.; Professor Robby George of Princeton, who along with Mary Anne Glendon, is the most eminent pro-life academic in the United States; Hadley Arkes who is the confidant to the key pro-life justices of the nation; Kevin Flannery, dean of the school of philosophy of the Gregorian University of Rome; William May professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Germain Grisez, eminent Catholic moral theologian; Bill Saunders of the Family Research Council, Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and many others who labor in the academy such as Christian Bruegger of the Institute for Psychological Sciences, and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo of Georgetown University.

I have been the recipient of great charity from a number of the people above during the last few weeks of debate following the HUMAN EVENTS piece, even, I now learn, when my misinterpretation put their good name at risk among some ardent pro-life people. Because of their kindness I know their greatness even more that I did in the past, and because of my error I must correct the injustice I have done.

I hope this will remove all use of my earlier words against the pro-life character of any of these eminent men who endorsed the ANT OAR proposal, all of whom are my heroes for so many reasons. I would have liked to be engaged in this debate, probably raising concerns with aspects of their work, but such engagement is dependant on this apology being accepted. I hope it will be. I do now recognize that the terms I used such as ‘disabled embryo’ and ‘embryo without a placenta’ are not accurate. While I may have deep concerns about the analysis made by ANT OAR advocates, I have no doubt of their good faith nor of their motivation to protect all embryonic human beings from exploitation and destruction.

It is ironic that in the first article I wrote, “‘Festine lente’ the old Latin adage is very much needed here. Hasten slowly.” Wish that I had.

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Mr. Hanson is director for human genetics policy at the International Center for Technology Assessment in Washington D.C.

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