Stem Cell Ethics

The good news out of Australia this week is that stem cells harvested from the noses of Parkinson's patients developed into dopamine-producing brain cells when transplanted into the brain of a lab rat. And while there has been no word about the potential for the human who is suffering from Parkinson's, there should be every reason for optimism. And as this news report makes abundantly clear, "Unlike unethical [human] embryonic stem cells – which have yielded no cures despite the investment of hundreds of millions of research dollars – these stem cells from a patient's nose do not develop into tumors, are compatible with a patient's immune system and therefore do not require dangerous immuno-suppressant drugs."

This brings me to the reason for sharing this bit of encouraging science with you. In the same set of e-mails which reported the Australian discovery, I also read about a most interesting article recently published in the scientific journal, Stem Cells. In a letter to the editor of that journal, Hans-Werner Denker tells the reader that he is convinced that the ethical problems inherent in the use of human embryonic stem cells, regardless of their original source, are huge. He writes that the ethical problem he sees is due to the "peculiar potentiality of those cells." By that, he means that whether those cells are totipotent, pluripotent or omnipotent – the use of these words depends on the author – the ability to (re)constitute viable individuals via tetraploid complementation is problematic.

Now in case you are wondering what in the world I have just said, you might be surprised to learn that I was so confused when I read this that I had to do a little research. And here is what I learned.

"Tetraploid complementation" means cloning. And as was recently written in a National Review Online commentary, "The tetraploid complementation procedure is simply a type of cloning. In the most common form of cloning – SCNT – a new organism is generated; it comes into being as an embryo which immediately begins actively developing itself into the more mature form of the whole organism it now is."

The fact that Denker's comments made the pages of a prestigious scientific journal should provide additional encouragement to those of us who have been arguing for some time now that any sort of research involving a human embryonic stem cell, regardless of how that stem cell was derived, is not only unethical but according to natural law, immoral.

I might add that Professor Dianne Irving has been saying the very same thing for years. In fact, this is precisely why she prepared the article "Framing the Debates on Human Cloning and Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Pluripotent vs. Totipotent," and put together a massive bibliography to affirm the facts regarding the human embryonic stem cell. As an introduction to the collection of scientific quotes, she tells the reader,

The purpose of the following selected bibliography on human embryonic stem cells is to demonstrate and document that most of the cells of the early developing human embryo are totipotent, and to refute the current claim – from both sides of the aisles – that they are all pluripotent. The long-established scientific fact is that most of them are "totipotent" – not pluripotent. That means that they can not only produce "all of the cells, tissues and organs of the adult human being", but that they also have the inherent natural capacity to undergo regulation and to thereby be reverted to new living human embryos – to be used for both research and for reproductive purposes.

The obvious proof that most of these early human embryonic cells are totipotent is right before our collective eyes – in the empirical fact of "twinning". If twins are formed long before and even after 14 days – and they are – that could only happen if at least some of the cells of the early human embryo are totipotent – not pluripotent. Indeed, a third of natural human monozygotic "twinning" takes place from the 2-cell through the morula stage of early human development; two-thirds of such twinning takes place by the splitting of the human embryo at the blastocyst stage of development. That automatically means that the human embryonic "stem" cells from which these twins are derived are totipotent – not pluripotent.

Professor Irving then asks the reader, "How has the current "confusion" about "pluripotent human embryonic stem cells" in the current popular literature come about?" From there, she explains the central problem inherent in the words that are used and the way those words can be manipulated, not only by the proponents of human embryonic stem cell research, but more importantly, by many pro-lifers.

Her article explains why we fall into the dilemma of using terms we do not understand and thus muddy the waters rather than clarify, in simple terms, the reasons why human embryonic stem cell research is wrong. I would encourage you to read and study her article carefully if you intend to properly defend the pro-life perspective on this most complicated, yet at the same time simple, subject.

As for me, I am hoping that each and every one of the U.S. Catholic bishops will read the article as well. The latest news indicates that the bishops are preparing a statement on this question, and it would be disastrous if the bishops fell into the very trap that Professors Irving and Denker have described.

Words, if used improperly, can and do condemn innocent human beings to death. And so I suggest that each of us not only learn from experts like Professor Irving, but also recall these profound words of St. Thomas Aquinas: "A small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end."