Tag Archives: embryo

Deploying gene-editing tempts man to play ‘creator’

This past winter a Chinese doctor made headlines when he claimed he created the first genetically modified human embryos who were successfully nurtured to birth.

The doctor used a developing biotechnology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that allows scientists to genetically edit cells. The technique holds the potential to treat a variety of genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and more complex conditions like cancers and heart disease.

As promising as that sounds, deploying gene-editing to human embryos is rife with ethical questions: concerns about experimentation on minors, human embryo destruction, the creation of life in a lab, “designer babies,” the boundary between therapy and “enhancement,” and interventions in the genome that will be passed on to future generations. 

Genetically modified human embryos raise new versions of old bioethical problems, as well as some new ones.

First, countless embryonic human beings were killed in the process that led to the live birth of these genetically modified children. Like all “assisted reproductive technologies,” many more embryos are created than are implanted and subsequently delivered. The remaining embryonic human beings are either frozen in perpetuity or destroyed. 

We should also care about the dignity of life in its origins. There is great danger in creating children in the laboratory, treating human subjects as objects of technological mastery. That will have profound moral and cultural implications as science progresses: societies can then view human life—all life, modified or not—as something that can easily be toyed with and discarded.

 We forget the fact that children should be begotten, not made, at our peril. We should be wary of practices that separate the life-giving act from the lovemaking act. Indeed, these new technologies are misnamed. They don’t “assist”— they replace fertility and procreation with reproduction in a sterile lab. Human beings are to be welcomed as gifts, not manufactured as products.

The technologies behind the manufacture of babies raise new questions, too. The CRISPRCas9 procedure allows scientists to take further steps down the road to creating designer babies. This would allow parents—or other authorities— to dictate the characteristics of future people.

There’s also the specter of a kind of “brave new world” genetic arms race. Imagine John Edwards’ ‘Two Americas,’ but between the genetic haves and the genetic have-nots. An America where certain wealthy (and morally unscrupulous people) design super-babies, while everyone else remains “unenhanced.” It isn’t hard to fathom how these new technologies could be deployed in the hands of racist, eugenicist, or genocidal governments of the future.

As Leon Kass has explained, “As bad as it might be to destroy a creature made in God’s image, it might be very much worse to be creating them after images of one’s own.”

 Of course, we have no idea what the consequences — both physical and social — will be to these genetic interventions. Scientists simply don’t know whether knocking out a particular gene will have other, unintended health consequences later. The genetic code is complicated and interconnected, and even a small, well-intentioned modification could have large ramifications. 

Furthermore, genetically modifying human embryos will modify their germline (sperm and ova), such that those modifications will transfer to future generations. So, for these Chinese babies, not only has their genome been modified, but their entire lineage could be affected. Right now, it all amounts to an experiment.

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. To avoid the trap of falling into a technocracy, humans must govern technology, not the reverse. We must avoid the trap of becoming Luddites. New biotechnologies hold potential to cure and prevent disease, to promote human flourishing— but only if the deployment of technology is governed by morality.

The experiments in China with genetically modified babies are just the beginning of what could go wrong.

RYAN T. ANDERSON, PH.D. (@RyanTAnd) was a featured speaker at the Legatus 2018 Summit. He is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, and of the recently released When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.

Unborn humans are persons with equal basic rights

Biology shows that abortion kills a human being — a human embryo or fetus. This should be enough to settle the issue of whether human embryos or fetuses have a right to life, since every human has equal and inherent fundamental rights.

Patrick Lee

Patrick Lee

However, some philosophers argue that, although a human embryo or fetus is a human organism, it is not yet a person. In order to be a person, they object, a human organism must have some additional characteristic — usually a capacity for higher mental functions, such as for self-consciousness. The argument may sound plausible at first: Are we not different from other animals precisely because we possess the capacity for higher mental functions?

Human embryos, in one sense, have the capacity for higher mental functions. If provided a suitable environment, they will actively develop themselves to the stage where they perform all of those types of actions. So the objection must be that human embryos or fetuses are not persons (bearers or rights) because they lack the immediately exercisable capacity for higher mental acts (that is, a capacity that can be exercised now or in the immediate future).

However, if this argument were correct, it would also follow that human infants are nonpersons and it would be morally permissible to kill infants, subject to parental approval. Some philosophers (Peter Singer, for example) say that intentionally killing infants — subject to parental approval — can be morally right. Still, most people still believe killing a newborn is wrong.

A second problem with this argument: If it were right, then it’s hard to see why it would be wrong to kill someone in a temporary coma. A human being in a coma lacks the immediately exercisable capacity for self-consciousness, although still a human being. The clearest reason why it’s wrong to kill a human in a coma is that he is the same kind of being as you and me: He is an individual with a nature that orients him to having self-consciousness and shaping his life by deliberate choice. But this same point is also true of the unborn human being.

Someone might object that, unlike an unborn human being, the individual in a coma did have self-consciousness in the past. And this being is a person, a bearer of rights, only because of that past self-consciousness, and that is why killing him is wrong. But suppose I had surgery that put me in a coma from which I gradually regained consciousness and knowledge and experience, but none of the memories and skills I possessed before the coma. In other words, I survived but never regained any of my past memories, skills, habits, and so on.

Would it be right to kill me after the surgery while I was in a coma and recovering? Of course not! But that would not be because of my past self-awareness, since all of that is gone forever. Rather, it would be wrong to kill me because it would deprive me of my future as a rational being, a being that, although not now conscious or self-aware, has a nature orienting him to develop to the stage where he will perform all of those distinctive human actions.

The best explanation of why it would be wrong to kill me in such a situation is that I am identical with the thing that eventually will have rational consciousness. So what makes you or me valuable as a subject of rights is the fundamental kind of being (substance, in philosophical language) we are. It’s wrong to kill you or me because we are beings with a rational nature, a nature orienting us to rationality and shaping of ourselves by our choices.

But a human embryo or fetus is the same kind of being as you and me. He or she also is an individual with a rational nature; only, it will take this being some time to actualize his or her rational nature. Another way of putting this is that every human being is a person, using the word “person,” though, to mean (as St. Thomas Aquinas used it) an individual substance with a rational nature.

You and I once were adolescents, before that we were children, before that we were infants, and before that we were fetuses and embryos. And just as it is wrong to kill you or me now, it would have been wrong to kill us when we were adolescents, wrong to kill us when we were infants, and wrong to kill us when were fetuses or embryos.

PATRICK LEE, PH.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Good ethics makes for good science

Find out why you’re not seeing much about stem cells in the news these days . . .

Wesley J. Smith

Have you noticed that the stem-cell controversy rarely makes the news these days? There’s a reason: The greatest advances in stem-cell research over the last decade have not involved cells taken from destroyed embryos.

That doesn’t fit the media template of embryonic stem cells being the “gold standard” for regenerative medicine, and indeed, the “only hope” for people struggling against diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Hence, advances that would have resulted in screaming headlines if accomplished with embryonic stem cells, barely caused a ripple and in many cases weren’t reported at all.

But there is plenty of good news on the ethical stem cell front. First, induced pluripotent stem-cell research (IPSC) is advancing exponentially. IPSCs are made by “reprogramming” normal cells — such as skin — into “embryonic-like” pluripotent stem cells that can be transformed into any kind of tissue in the body. This means that we may be able to obtain every purported benefit touted for embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) without destroying embryos.

IPSCs can’t yet be used in direct treatments because, like embryonic stem cells, they can cause tumors. But IPSCs are already being used in valuable experiments that we were once told would require human cloning to allow. For example, IPSCs have been made from Parkinson’s patients’ cells and changed into neurons to study the disease. IPSCs are also being used to test drugs and have been turned into mini faulty hearts to study rhythm disorders. This technique has advanced so far that in animal studies, one type of tissue was turned directly into another — without first going through the stem cell stage.

Meanwhile, advances on early human trials using adult stem cells are offering true hope for an eventual revolution in the treatment of some of humankind’s most intractable diseases. Here’s a sampling:

Heart disease: While there have been some mixed results to date in treating heart disease with adult stem cells, several human trials have shown great promise. For example, a March 2011 article in Circulation Research: Journal of the American Heart Association found that injecting bone marrow stem cells reduced the size of enlarged hearts by 15-20% and reduced scar tissue after heart attack by 18.3%.

Blindness caused by eye injury: Last year, a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients blinded by caustic chemicals had sight restored with the use of their own eye stem cells.

Multiple Sclerosis: It’s been known for some time that adult stem cells can stop the progression of MS. The treatment has carried some risk because it requires chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s immune system, after which bone marrow stem cells are used to reboot the body’s defenses. More recently, a small safety trial published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that injecting a pint of patients’ own bone marrow taken from the pelvis is not only safe, but appears to have efficacious benefit for patients — and without the use of potentially dangerous chemotherapy.

There are literally thousands of adult stem cell human trials ongoing at the present time around the world — as opposed to just three very small ESCR safety studies. Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, tracks these studies from around the world. He told me, “Published evidence demonstrating that adult stem cells can repair diverse tissues continues to mount. Even though there is little media interest, adult stem cells are effectively helping thousands of patients for dozens of diseases right now, with much more coming in the pipeline.” It is increasingly likely that the future of regenerative medicine can be powerfully efficacious without crossing important ethical lines.

And that’s the point to always remember whenever discussing the stem cell controversies: The debate has never been an argument about “science,” but rather, over proper ethics. But morality can seem terribly abstract in the face of hyped promises of cures!

But now that it has become clear that IPSCs, adult stem-cell research, and other ethical regenerative techniques have actually travelled farther than ESCR, even that weak argument is collapsing. Indeed, President George W. Bush had it right — and his critics had it wrong — when he expressed faith in the imagination and ingenuity of science to find ways forward in the stem cell sector that both promoted good science and maintained a proper regard for the sanctity of human life.

Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Find out more by visiting his blog, Secondhand Smoke.

Can we know when life begins?

Dr. Patrick Lee says there’s a strong logical case for the pro-life position . . .

Dr. Patrick Lee

There is heated disagreement over abortion in our culture. But in the mainstream media the reasons for this disagreement are never discussed. A U.S. senator, for example, will be asked for his opinion, but he will never be asked why he opposes or favors abortion.

Apparently the reigning view is that people either abhor or approve of abortion merely through their emotions. Or perhaps it’s assumed that opposition to abortion is just a strange rule that some Christians happen to hold. In either case, the result is that no one discusses reasons pro or con because — it seems — there just aren’t any.

This is a mistake. There’s a strong logical case for the pro-life position. I will present some of the evidence that a human being begins at fertilization. If one adds to this point that every human organism is a person with basic rights (and there are strong arguments for this also), then the pro-life position has a robust logical defense.

To see this, let’s consider some of the facts about sexual reproduction. At fertilization a sperm unites with an ovum, each of them ceases to be, and a new entity is generated. (Hence it makes no sense to say that a sperm or an ovum becomes a mature human, or that a sperm or an ovum has the potential to become a mature human: Ingredients do not become what they enter into, whereas an immature human being — an embryo, fetus, or infant — does become an adult human being simply by maturing.) It’s obvious that the human embryo is a distinct entity, not a part of the mother or a part of the father. For unlike body cells, tissues, or organs, the embryo does not function as part of its mother.

The one-cell embryo (zygote) develops by dividing into two cells, then four, then eight and so on. While these divisions occur, all of the cells continue to be enclosed within a thin membrane called the zona pellucid, which is inherited from the ovum.

Are these merely a bundle of disparate cells? The evidence shows that together they make up one organism. These cells inter-communicate and seem to function together as parts of a whole in a regular and predictable manner. As a result, they perform an ordered, differentiated growth and constitute a stable body. For as the embryo travels down the uterine tube into the uterus during the first four or five days, the different cells begin differential gene expression (modifications of different parts of the DNA within the cells’ nuclei in order to generate different types of new cells that can function in different ways).

On day three or four, at the transition from the eight-cell stage to the 16-cell stage, the embryo differentiates into trophoblastic cells (precursors of the placenta) on the one hand, and inner cell mass cells (precursors of the permanent part of the embryo and fetus), on the other hand. This is the first overt functional differentiation that occurs, but the cells have been preparing for this differentiation since day one.

So from the zygote stage onward the cells are functioning as parts of a whole, and there is inner coordination toward the next step in a developmental trajectory that eventually involves a clear development of a body plan and distinct organs. The material constitution of the embryo from the one-cell stage onward provides it an active disposition to develop itself to the mature stage of a human being.

This is a new and distinct multi-cellular organism. It is developing itself in a predictable direction. Obviously it is also human since its cells have the genetic structure characteristic of humans.

The next question is crucial: Is this a whole human organism? This is important because human tissue and human cells alone are not whole human organisms — for example, an isolated skin cell or a heart before it’s implanted into a recipient. Each of these is human but neither is a whole organism.

The evidence indicating that the human embryo is a whole human is that it has within itself all of the internal resources and the active disposition to develop itself to the mature stage of a human being. The direction of its growth is internally coordinated — what it receives from outside itself is only a suitable environment and nutrition. The organizational information for its growth comes from within.

Moreover, at no stage after fertilization does there occur a fundamental change in the direction of growth. None of the changes that occur to this being afterward — as long as this being stays alive — qualify as producing a fundamental change in its interiorly directed growth, so as to involve the coming to be of a new organism. Rather, everything that happens after fertilization either assists or retards its interiorly directed self-development.

So a new, whole human organism comes to be at fertilization. And, given that we are human organisms, it follows that you and I came to be at the same time the human embryos that we once were came to be.

Patrick Lee, Ph.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is a nationally known keynote speaker and author on contemporary ethics, especially on marriage and the value of human life.

Frozen embryo adoption

Certain moral questions like embryo adoption are still open to further debate . . .

Despite scientific evidence and detailed Church teaching, certain moral questions are still open to further theological reflection. The National Catholic Bioethics Center offers the following exchange between two of its ethicists on whether the 2008 Vatican document The Dignity of the Person (DP) allows for the adoption of frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures.

Dr. Stephen Napier

Dr. Stephen Napier says YES

“It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of prenatal adoption. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems” (DP #19).

Some have taken this note to reject embryo adoption. I do not think that is correct. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “The document raises cautions or problems about these new issues but does not formally make a definitive judgment against them.” Also, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, has said that embryo adoption is still an open question. If the USCCB and the Pontifical Academy for Life got it wrong, the Vatican would have corrected them publicly. But there has not been any correction, so the question on embryo adoption remains open.

Embryo adoption is clearly an act by which a young human being is saved. The fact that the woman must gestate the child in order to save the child does not change the moral quality of the action. Childhood adoption, after all, is not only permissible but is encouraged by the Church. Adopting a child that happens to be younger, and thus requires implantation in a mother’s womb, means only that the woman must sacrifice more, thus growing in charity. Those who say that embryo adoption achieves procreation apart from the marital union misunderstand the obvious fact that the child already exists! The child has already been procreated.

The Church says that the child has a right to be gestated by his or her own parents. But who violates that right? Clearly, the parents who went through IVF and abandoned him or her to life in a freezer. In fact, the embryo-adopting couple cannot violate this right.

Adopting an embryo is a way to love a child in a very vulnerable state. Additionally, it gives witness to the inherent dignity of all human beings no matter how small.


Dr. John Haas

Dr. John M. Haas says NO

“The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature” (DP #19).

The Holy See acknowledges the good motivation of those proposing pre-natal adoption of frozen embryos but states that not even an infertile couple may have them implanted for the various reasons already stated: that in vitro fertilization, artificial heterologous procreation and surrogate mothering (a woman who is not the mother allows the “renting” out of her womb for gestation) are wrong. In such cases, embryos are manipulated and subjected to the decisions and actions of others that do not respect the inviolability of their personhood.

First of all, some frozen embryos will be chosen to live while others will be allowed to die. What will be the criteria used as to which will live and which will die? Would just boy embryos be chosen? Just Asians? Caucasians? These are arbitrary criteria used to decide who will have a chance at life and who will not.

Second, the “thawing” process itself will result in the deaths of some embryos. And then, after they have been thawed, the surviving embryos will be judged as to which will have the greatest chance of survival. Again, arbitrary judgments will be made as to which will be given a chance to live and which not. And how are the ones not chosen for implantation discarded?

Third, single women have advanced the same arguments for rescuing the embryos by offering their bodies to gestate them even though they do not have husbands. This would deny the child the good of an integral family.

Finally, husbands and wives give the procreative powers of their bodies to one another as a gift to be open to the engendering of new life between them. As St. Paul said, “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but to his wife” (1 Cor 7:4). To place someone else’s child into the body of the wife would violate the integrity of the marital union unique to that husband and wife.

As regrettable as it is, “it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved” (DP #19)

John M. Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Stephen Napier is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.

The fight for life

Science proves that human life begins at conception. Tell your elected officials . . .

Patrick Novecosky

Patrick Novecosky

Recent gaffes by RNC chairman Michael Steele and former Democratic President Bill Clinton have left a lot of pro-lifers (and others) scratching their heads. We are right to expect our elected officials to have all the facts — especially on the life issues — before making decisions and public statements that affect millions of lives.

In early March, Steele — reportedly a pro-life Catholic — told GQ magazine that his mother had the option of getting an abortion or giving birth to him. “The choice issue cuts two ways,” said Steele, who was adopted. “You can choose life, or you can choose abortion. You know, my mother chose life.” Asked whether he thought women had the right to choose abortion, Steele said, “Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice.”

The term “choice” has been used for decades by pro-abortion advocates to mislead and deceive. It seems Steele has bought it hook, line and sinker. It is never morally permissible to “choose” evil — especially to kill an innocent human being.

Similarly, Clinton told CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta a few days later that embryos are not fertilized. Several times during the interview Clinton falsely indicated that embryos are not fertilized. “I believe the American people believe it’s a pro-life decision to use an embryo that’s frozen and never going to be fertilized for embryonic stem cell research,” he said.

The level of Clinton’s ignorance is staggering. Here is an educated man, the country’s former CEO, but he cannot distinguish between an embryo and an egg.

We must demand better from our elected officials. Dr. Jack Willke has dispensed some very simple, practical advice over the years, but this gem is among the best: Science proves beyond a doubt that human life begins at conception, and taking an innocent human life is never morally permissible. If pro-lifers hammer home those points, we will win over those who logically can accept the pro-life argument.

However, logic and facts won’t win over everyone. We can never forget that we’re in a spiritual battle. Saint Paul wrote to Timothy that “the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth” (2 Tim 4: 3-4).

There’s little doubt we’re living in the day Paul describes. We can also never forget that our enemy is not the abortionist, the pro-abortion politician, the right-to-die advocate or the radical feminist. As Paul reminds us, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with … the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). The only way to overcome that kind of evil is through prayer and fasting. Let’s finish Lent strong and make a difference so that the most vulnerable may live.

Patrick Novecosky is the editor of Legatus Magazine.