Tag Archives: in vitro fertilization

Three controversial bioethical questions

Christian Brugger explores the complex world of bioethics in the 21st century . . .

Christian Brugger

Christian Brugger1

Imagine you’re an official with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and you receive a memo from the Holy Father asking for your ethical opinion on three innovations in the field of bioethics.

The first concerns a variation of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to help patients potentially to overcome the debilitating effects of mitochondrial DNA (m-DNA) disease. But in order to gain these benefits, IVF embryos need to be created using the biological material from three parents. The second technique uses stem cells from human fingernails and toenails to help amputees grow new limbs, and the third involves growing human organs inside a pig.

Your initial response is a combination of fascination and repugnance. But you don’t want to jump to any conclusions because of the “yuck factor.” Nor do you want to naively approve morally objectionable techniques. Realizing that not all bioethical techniques are created equal, you critique each using principles of Catholic morality.

Three parent” embryos. Because it uses a form of IVF, you already know it’s ethically objectionable. IVF transmutes the begetting of new human life from the context of self-giving in marital intercourse to the making of an object by a laboratory technique.

But you suspect the grounds for objection stretch even wider. The technique can be performed in two ways. In the first, a woman who suffers from m-DNA disease has one of her oocytes (eggs) engineered to remove all infected m-DNA. That m-DNA exists only in her egg’s cytoplasm, not in its nucleus. Another egg, from a donor, with an uninfected cytoplasm is needed. Two eggs: one with “good” cytoplasm, one with a “good” nucleus are combined, and the resulting egg is fertilized with male sperm. A human being comes into existence who allegedly doesn’t suffer from m-DNA disease.

There are several problems with this. First, we don’t know if this would cure the disease. Moreover, transferring an egg nucleus is complicated and would take many trials to perfect. Further, we could not possibly be sure of the long-term effects on human development. Thus it would subject embryos — human beings — to the risk of grave developmental harm. Finally, the genetic composition of the embryo derives from “three parents.” This fact is part of the embryo’s identity and so will be an important part of the future adult’s self-understanding. Parentage confusion from this technique has been greatly minimized by some bioethicists, but shouldn’t be dismissed.

Since human dignity is violated in this situation, you decide to advise the Holy Father to oppose the technique and to back forms of research that do not destroy human beings or subject them to unreasonable risk of physical and psychological harm.

Nail stem cells. The cells used in the second type of research are adult stem cells harvested from human fingernails and toenails. You know that adult stem cell research is — in principle — morally unproblematic, so you examine the research with interest. You learn that in both mice and humans, the regeneration of an amputated digit involves the activity of stem cells found in the nails.

Studies have shown that if an amputation removes the nail stem cells, no regeneration of the corresponding digit occurs. If the nail stem cells remain, regrowth can occur. The technique’s principle requires learning how nail stem cells are biochemically signaled to regenerate limbs. If that can be understood more fully, then researchers might be able to artificially signal the cells from amputees to grow them new limbs. You decide to advise the Holy Father to cautiously support further research into the matter.

Pig incubators. The third technology involves injecting a human stem cell into a pig embryo that’s been genetically engineered not to develop a certain kind of internal organ (e.g., a pancreas). The embryo is then transferred into the uterus of a female pig to develop to birth; the developing pig develops with a human organ!

The technique at first sounds benign, sort of like using a pig’s body as a kind of incubator to grow human organs. But you learn that the human stem cell injected into the pig embryo does not merely develop into a human organ. Human cells incorporate randomly and in unknown proportions throughout the developing organism.

In other words, the technique produces a human-pig chimera, which may even generate human rather than porcine sperm and possess a significant percentage of human brain matter. Although organs might be prompted to grow, the problematic nature of creating human-non-human organisms leads you to recommend against supporting further research using this technique.

CHRISTIAN BRUGGER, PH.D., is the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo.

Who lives, who dies, who decides?

Marie Hilliard: People who want a ‘perfect life’ will even kill children . . .

Marie T. Hilliard

Marie T. Hilliard

We live in a culture that perpetuates the myth that we can have a perfect life. Baby Boomers embraced the fable that they can control everything, including life and death. After all, technology has provided such great advances that children can be engendered on demand.

If less than perfect offspring are identified before birth, they can be eliminated. In the Netherlands, parents have the option of “after birth abortion” — also known as murder or infanticide. This has evolved into a cultural mindset that deems less-than-“perfect” persons — such as those with disabilities and the elderly with dementia — as unfit to live, or at least unworthy to have equitable access to health care resources.

As we witness the generation that embraced abortion-on-demand advancing in age, will this generation now be the subject of the next generation’s similar approach to the frail or disabled elderly?

As faith is being driven out of the public square, the concept that suffering can have meaning is increasingly alien to our culture. Many of us remember being formed by faithful nuns. They showed us how suffering can have meaning when united to the cross. How often did we hear, “Offer it up” — especially for the poor souls in Purgatory?

We live in a culture that only accepts the redemption that is falsely depicted as a perfect life in this world. Public policy makers, including elected officials, are merely products of our culture whom we’ve empowered to represent us in the public square; and as these polices unfold, there is growing evidence that the only acceptable way to deal with suffering is to abandon or eradicate the sufferer.

The evidence is everywhere. Studies demonstrate that in vitro fertilization (IVF) is being used by some parents to accomplish preimplantation genetic diagnosis on their very own offspring. A recent study indicates that 42% of the centers that engage in such lethal procedures will do so for sex selection. This move toward designer babies is a clear indication of a eugenic mentality, where only the flawless are allowed to live. No one can ignore the changing attitudes on how we treat the frail elderly and persons with disabilities.

Three states have legalized physician-assisted suicide (PAS): Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Montana decriminalized it through court order. The frightening fact is that there is a trend progressing toward active euthanasia, which is the case in the Netherlands. And if one looks at the statistics from Oregon, the data give great pause. Despite the fact that Oregon law mandates that a physician require a psychological evaluation of a patient if there is any question of whether a mental health condition may be causing the person to want to die, of the 673 persons assisted to die, only 42 were referred for such an evaluation.

What person wanting to end their life is not experiencing a treatable depression that could be alleviated if someone merely accompanied them in their suffering? Furthermore, Oregon law will not allow family members to be told of the request without explicit consent, nor allow the death certificate to list anything other than the underlying pathology as the cause of death. Thus, the frail elderly and disabled may easily be convinced by an exhausted or greedy family member that to kill oneself might be in everyone’s best interests.

Then enter the government with its own eugenic version of health care reform. The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) supports programs that provide abortion-on-demand and requires employers to provide employees with contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. It also penalizes health care providers who, in caring for the elderly and disabled, are costing the government too much money. There are penalties for hospital readmissions for the same diagnosis within a 30-day period. There is a 15-member Medicare Advisory Panel which will determine reimbursement polices on cost effectiveness.

The evidence is clear: Social policy is dictating who is worthy to be accompanied in their suffering and who is to be eliminated as too great a burden to our society. This is heralding a whole new approach to the sufferer and with it the denigration of our humanity. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi : “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through compassion is a cruel and inhuman society” (II, 38).

If we do not accompany the sufferer, and even worse, if we eliminate him from our midst, we have become a cruel and inhumane society.

MARIE T. HILLIARD, JCL, PhD, RN, is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Human stockpiling

Fr. Pacholczyk contends that the United States urgently needs embryo protection laws . . .

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk

A recent news report chronicled a Chinese woman named Huang Yijun. Sixty years ago, her unborn child died, but the infant was never expelled from her body. Instead, her baby’s body slowly began to calcify inside her, becoming a crystallized, stone-like mass. Such stone babies (known as lithopedions) are extremely rare. When Huang was 92 years old, the baby was discovered in her abdomen and surgically removed.

This rare medical event prompts us to consider a thought experiment. Imagine a drug that could be injected into a child to crystallize him, but without killing him. The process would turn the child into a static mass for as many years as the parents wanted; another injection would reverse the process and allow the child to wake up and continue growing. Parents who decided they needed a break from parenting could bring their kids to the clinic and pay to store them as crystals for a limited period of time. Some children might end up never being decrystallized, with their stony bodies piling up in warehouses.

Such a bizarre warehousing of children is not as outlandish as it might seem. In fact, fertility clinics in the United States already warehouse more than 500,000 children in high-tech freezers filled with liquid nitrogen, children who are crystallized by-products of the in vitro fertilization process. Parents can choose to “re-animate” their embryonic children by thawing them, implanting them and gestating them. But in other instances, they end up being abandoned because their parents become too old to carry a pregnancy or are content with the number of their already-born children.

The multi-billion-dollar infertility business in the U.S. has been aptly described as a kind of “Wild West” — a lawless frontier where nearly anything goes, including the daily freezing and stockpiling of scores of embryonic humans. This practice is one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our age. Few commentators, however, dare to raise their voices against this injustice, which is proficiently marketed as a matter of personal reproductive freedom. Because our frozen children have no voice to speak in their own defense, we slip into a mindset that ignores their inherent dignity.

But not every country has been so blind. Germany, which has a strong historical memory of the consequences of ignoring human dignity, declines to participate in these charades. Strikingly, human embryos are not being frozen anywhere in the country, and virtually none are held in cryogenic storage. Meanwhile, countless American parents find themselves caught in agonizing dilemmas about what to do with their offspring held in suspended animation.

The reason for this remarkable difference lies in the fact that the Germans enacted the Embryo Protection Law of 1990, which includes provisions outlawing the freezing of human embryos. Italy has passed similar legislation. Both countries closely regulate in vitro fertilization treatments and allow the production of no more than three embryos at a time — all of whom must be implanted into their mother. Both countries forbid the production of extra embryos, experimentation on embryos, cloning of embryos and genetic testing of embryos.

Not much reflection is needed to realize the serious injustice involved in forcefully “crystallizing” another human being. The freezing and thawing process itself subjects embryonic humans to significant risk. Up to 50% of embryos perish in the process. Stored embryos often end up being condemned to a kind of perpetual stasis, locked in time in the harsh wasteland of their liquid-nitrogen orphanages. This injustice, once it has been foisted upon human embryos, is then used by others to argue on behalf of an even more egregious offense against their dignity: the destructive strip-mining of embryos to acquire their stem cells.

The radical stockpiling of embryonic humans threatens to become nearly routine in our society, as such humans are reduced to little more than “stony objects” to be warehoused and manipulated — valuable primarily for how they can serve the commercial interests or the personal desires of others. The temptation to dehumanize our own brothers and sisters is a perennial one, hearkening back to that time in our country, not so long ago, when slaves could be considered only three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. Treating embryos as zero-fifths of a person constitutes an even more deplorable violation of human rights.

The United States urgently needs embryo protection laws. Men and women of conscience must pressure lawmakers to act. The putative and widely touted “self-regulation” of fertility clinics remains a dismal failure. Laws like those in Germany and Italy, while they would not stop every injustice done to the least powerful among us, could go a long way towards assuring that further forms of scientific barbarism and human exploitation do not become commonplace.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

A time for change

Dr. John Haas says in vitro fertilization is beneath the dignity of human beings . . .

Dr. John Haas

Dr. John Haas

It became apparent the student was becoming impatient with my lecture in a course on Catholic social doctrine. He finally put up his hand and blurted out, “What kind of society do you want, anyway?”

“Well,” I said, “just for starters, a society in which pornography is illegal, abortion is outlawed, the sale and distribution of contraceptives is prohibited, and divorce is very difficult to obtain.” The student literally leapt out of his chair and declared, “You’re crazy! How could you ever hope to have a society like that?”

“You know,” I replied, “that is precisely the kind of society in which I grew up.”

There have been such radical cultural shifts since the ’60s that it’s difficult to believe that the world could ever be any other way. However, when I was a teenager in Pennsylvania, contraceptives were illegal. Pornography was not to be found. Playboy came along and offered free subscriptions to any minister, priest or rabbi who requested it on church or synagogue stationery! They targeted society’s moral guardians with the express purpose of breaking down resistance to sexual immorality.

The “old” morality, however, did not simply disappear. Some worked diligently, indeed relentlessly, to undermine and overthrow it. You would think that they would now be satisfied that they had achieved their goals. However, they still don’t rest. Now they want to force Catholic employers to provide contraception in their employee health plans. They want to deprive physicians and hospitals of conscience protections if they’re opposed to performing abortions. They want to gain state recognition of same-sex “marriage.” They want to lower the age of sexual consent.

A number of years ago there was a front page story in the New York Times: “The Job at Fertility Clinics No One Wants.” That job was to dispose of the excess embryos remaining from infertility treatments. Why would fertility clinic lab technicians who had engendered microscopic human embryos have any qualms about disposing of them? Because deep in their hearts they knew that they’re not dealing merely with microscopic undifferentiated biological material, but with human beings of great worth and value.

Deep in their hearts, abortion advocates also know it’s wrong. That’s why they speak of “choice” without ever mentioning what is being chosen. They’ll speak of the “termination of a pregnancy” without saying what in fact is being done: the murder of a child. When a mother delivers her child, that also “terminates a pregnancy,” but the end result is very different from that of an abortion.

Pope John Paul II was actually somewhat encouraged that individuals tried to hide what they were doing by the language they used because it showed they knew it was wrong. “Especially in the case of abortion there is widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as ‘interruption of pregnancy,’ which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience” (Evangelium Vitae, #58. 1995).

There are many in our society who want to hide the reality of things — or who simply cannot face reality. A presidential candidate claims that determining when life begins is beyond his pay grade. U.S. Supreme Court justices claim we cannot know when life begins. Other societies, however, seem a bit more capable of facing reality. The secular country of Germany, for example, has an Embryo Protection Law which forbids experimentation on human embryos. Abortion is admittedly legal in Germany, but it’s much more restricted than in the U.S.

Catholics and other pro-lifers are often asked how they can oppose embryo freezing and destructive experimentation on embryos since in vitro fertilization (IVF) is legal and widely practiced in the U.S. After all, if something useful isn’t done with them, they’ll simply go to waste. However, the Church would welcome the legal prohibition of IVF since it’s beneath the dignity of human beings to be engendered in Petri dishes by lab techs rather than by the loving embrace of parents. The Church would also welcome the prohibition of IVF since many embryonic lives are lost in the attempt to bring a new life to term.

But our society does not have to be as it is. In Costa Rica, IVF has been unconstitutional since 2000 because it violates human life. If human life is so protected in Costa Rica, it ought to be conceivable that the same protections of human life could be put in place in the U.S. The social disorder in which we live today can be corrected. That’s why we work so hard to bring about social change. We have to be as persistent and relentless as those who, for whatever misguided reasons, work against the good of human life.

Virgil once declared, “What a toil it was to found the Roman Empire!” We Catholics can expect no less toil and struggle in building up a culture of life. And as we work doggedly and tirelessly, we need to remind ourselves that society does not need to be as it is! It can be better.

John M. Haas, Ph.D., 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.