Tuesday, October 27. 2009
Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, the disgraced cloning researcher who claimed he cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells, was convicted this week of embezzlement and was given a two-year suspended sentence. In my estimation, Dr. Hwang's major crime was not his fraudulent paper, or his misappropriation of funds. It was his exploitation of female researchers in his lab for their eggs. Cloning takes eggs, lots of them. Donating eggs is not easy and has resulted in infertility and even death. Whether female researchers in his lab were pressured to donate eggs or not, this was a huge breach of ethics.
Dr. Hwang's return to the spotlight reminded me that cutting edge biotechnology, especially in the reproductive arena, is a woman's issue. Embryonic stem cell research and research cloning cannot continue without the precious eggs that reside in our ovaries. In the future, reproductive cloning and genetic engineering of children cannot go anywhere without our wombs to gestate scientists' latest creations. All of these come with significant risks for the woman whose biology is so essential.
Some would say that compensation is sufficient to insure that woman are not exploited by the biotechnology machine. I disagree. I call compensation for surrogacy and egg donation high-tech prostitution that preys on low income women. Too many scientists view women as banks of harvestable biological material that they regrettably have to pay for.
Recently, Dr. Sam Wood of Stemagen Corp. said he wants to pay women to harvest their eggs. He cries that he can't get them any other way. Forget about the health risks to young women, Dr. Wood wants the eggs to continue to pursue therapeutic cloning.
"Give us the eggs. If we don't succeed, then be critical," said Wood. "You have to give people the tools that are required to determine whether the methodology will work."
Once again the ends justify the means, the only problem is that he is talking about young women putting their fertility and health at risk to supply him with raw material for his cloning experiments.
I think some men just do not get that donating eggs is NOT like donating sperm. I will go one further and say that if they required the harvesting of sperm cells directly from the testicles with hormone injections and needles, embryonic stem cell research and cloning would still be science fiction. Guaranteed.
"If the primary moral objection to reproductive cloning is that it will likely result in genetic error in reprogramming, then of course we want research to prevent that kind of problem. But how do we do that? The best way is to see how cloned embryos develop and to study them, gestating them in female chimpanzees, artificial wombs, or human volunteers, then aborting them to see which are normal and which are not, then experimenting to see how to create only normally developing embryos/fetuses."
Dr. Pence those "human volunteers" are real women who would be putting their own fertility and mental and physical health at risk by not only carrying a cloned fetus, but also going through an elective abortion in the name of science.
Even pro-lifers are not above falling into the women as "harvestable biological material" trap. Remember Dr. William Hurlbut from Stanford who proposed Altered Nuclear Transfer with Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (ANT-OAR) as an alternative to cloning for generating patient specific embryonic stem cells? Thirty five heavyweight pro-life academics, including Fr. Thomas Berg and Fr. Tad Pacholczyk signed a statement endorsing ANT-OAR. The problem? The oocyte part. Oocyte means egg and ANT-OAR would require human eggs just like cloning. ANT-OAR would have required the same number, if not more, women to donate eggs to satisfy this technique's need for eggs.
It is exactly the egg and embryo problem that has caused some stem cell researchers to abandon embryonic stem cell research and cloning altogether and work with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) instead. IPS cells require no embryos or eggs and still behave like embryonic stem cells. These iPS cells would also be a genetic match to the patient so there would be no need for cloning.
This is why should women care about biotechnology. Because it is their bodies that will be exploited to make some of the visions of scientists come to fruition. If we do not provide the raw materials, embryonic stem cell research and cloning cannot proceed and more alternatives like iPS cells will be found. Women need to stand up and say, "Find another way." Some have already. Hand Off Our Ovaries, of which I am a member, is a group of pro-choice and pro-life women and men who realize how advances in biotechnology will exploit vulnerable women.
Do your daughters a favor. Teach them about biotechnology, the good and the bad. Make sure they understand how valuable their bodies are. Teach them how egg donation and surrogacy work and the risks involved. Make sure they understand how not to fall victim to exploitation in the Brave New World.
Friday, October 23. 2009
A husband and wife pair in western Washington state are trying to raise money for him to go to Germany for a stem cell transplant for his failing heart. Erik and Jenn Gelhar have already raised $40,000 of the $100,000 they need to get him to Germany for the treatment at X-Cell Centre in Dusseldorf Germany.
Jenn and Erik Gelhar
Photo by Talithia Taitano
So why does an American have to travel to Germany to get such a treatment? Why are they farther ahead than the United States in adult stem cell treatments for heart disease? According to this article that quotes Dr. Charles Murray of University of Washington, it is because of Bush's funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and cloning:
Actually, Germany did one better than President Bush's funding ban and has OUTLAWED embryo destructive research and cloning all together. Germany does not fund such research at all because it is illegal to create or use embryos for research. The German Act for the Protection of Embryos states:
The reason Germans are so far ahead in adult stem cell treatments is because they don't waste time or money on stem cell research that does not now, and may never, treat patients i.e. embryonic stem cell research and cloning. (Imagine where the United States would be if millions of dollars that are spent on embryo destructive research were put into adult stem cell research instead.)
Gelhar also has to fly to Germany because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. has ruled that harvesting one's own stem cells and using them as treatment, a procedure called an autologous stem cell transplant, falls under the same strict guidelines as a new drug. This means that an autologous stem cell transplant, like the one Eric wants, has to go through long years of clinical trials.
I wish the Gelhars all the best in their efforts. (If I lived closer I would go to the concert they are putting on to help raise money.) I pray that Erik gets his stem cell transplant and gets to live a long and happy life. I hope he will not fall victim to the politics of embryonic stem cell research.
Tuesday, October 20. 2009
Here we go again with the fast and loose use of terminology so we can all feel warm and fuzzy about embryo screening. Here is the article:
Comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) takes a single cell from very young embryo to test for genetic abnormalities. It is a form of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis where embryos that make the genetic cut are implanted and those that do not are thrown in the trash or donated to research.
Here is the problem. How can you test an embryo unless it has ALREADY been conceived? If all of the embryos tested with CGH have already been conceived then how can CGH "double conception rates" as the article claims?
I'll tell you how. By changing the definition of conception to mean implantation. See, it is so much easier to toss out something you think hasn't been "conceived" yet. When people think pre-conception they think egg and sperm which is accurate. But by saying the embryos that are being tested haven't been conceived yet, these embryos suddenly carry the moral weight of egg and sperm. Which means practically none. Egg, sperm, pre-conceived embryo? All just biological waste that can be tossed out if defective.
The problem is that embryos have been conceived. They are fundamentally different from egg and sperm. They are full members of the species Homo sapiens and organisms in their own right. No amount of linguistic gymnastics can change that.
By the way, read this part again:
Who exactly sends their offspring on ice by mail or courier to the UK to have them tested for genetic abnormalities anyway?
Sunday, October 18. 2009
A fish named Holly may have placed Singapore on the world map for being the birthplace of the very first semi-cloned animal.
This begs the question: why would scientists want to create an animal that was only semi-cloned? As with much crazy manipulations in creating life, scientists envision this technique being used to treat infertility in humans:
Now, the successful birth of the first semi-cloned animal, Holly the fish, means researchers can possibly use semi-cloning as a method to treat infertile couples....
Scientists want to replace the sperm from infertile men and use a genetically modified stem cell from them for conception instead. This would allow infertile men to have "genetically-related" offspring.
The Catholic Church would be soundly against using this technique in humans for many reasons. First, it would require the creation of human life in a dish. Second, it would result in a genetically modified embryo that could not but help passing that genetic modification on to its offspring.
Interestingly, this above article has a great quote on this technique from a Catholic priest:
Father James Yeo from St Anne's Church told MediaCorp: "The Catholic Church has no objection to the cloning of plants and animals as long as these technologies are not harmful to the environment and do not pose any disproportionate risks to human life."
Saturday, October 17. 2009
From the UK Times Online:
You tell them Naomi! Oh and she is not done:
Eggsactly! Could not have said it better.
Hat Tip: Jennifer Lahl
Wednesday, October 14. 2009
The new documentary Google Baby films the creation of babies across three continents. The review asks:
Eggs are donated by young American women looking for quick cash and embryos are created by IVF in American clinics, sometimes with sperm from men from other countries. Then they are frozen and shipped to India where Dr. Nayna Patel has a surrogacy business. Her surrogates are implanted with the western embryos at bargain prices. The surrogates carry the fetuses and are then given an automatic C-section. The baby is taken to its "parents" and the surrogate is left to cry on the operating table. These poor women can earn upwards of 15 years worth of salary for a single surrogacy.
From the UK DailyMail:
Watch the heart wrenching video from "Google Baby" of an Indian surrogate fulfilling her contractual duty and watching the life she carried in her womb being taken to his purchasing parents. My heart breaks for the surrogate and the baby who is crying for his "mother."
This is one more phenomenon that cheapens procreation and turns it into a business. This really does remind me of "The Island" where clone surrogates give birth and then are "dispatched" and Huxely's Brave New World where babies are mass produced in hatcheries.
Tuesday, October 13. 2009
Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Francis Collins, the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This appointment may raise a few eyebrows because Collins is in favour of using left-over IVF embryos for embryonic stem cell research. Collins also believes that an embryo made by somatic cell nuclear transfer or cloning is fundamentally different from an embryo made from egg and sperm even though animal embryos created with cloning grow into adult animals all the time. Collins argues that because cloned embryos are different, it is morally permissible to create and destroy them for research.
The Catholic Church rejects both of these views. So why would the Pope appoint Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences? Does this foreshadow a change in the Church's teaching on cloning and embryonic stem cell research? Should Catholics be troubled by this appointment?
Absolutely not. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a body that is charged with giving the Vatican the most up to date, most scientifically accurate information regardless of religious (or non-religious) affiliation. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1936 to promote the sciences and its members are some of the most heavy-hitting, Nobel-prize winning scientists of the 20th century, many of whom probably disagree with the Church on a great many things. From The Pontifical Academy of Sciences: A Historical Profile by Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo:
Francis Collins certainly has the scientific credentials to be appointed to such an academic body. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences focuses on 6 major areas:
Members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences include Stephen Hawking, (an agnostic who also supports ESC research), and many Nobel Prize winners including Werner Arber, who discovered restriction endonucleases, David Baltimore, who discovered reverse transcriptase, and and Paul Berg who shared his Nobel with Gilbert and Sanger for work on nucleic acids. You bio-geeks out there know what I am talking about.
The Academy also tackles some of the most difficult scientific and moral discussions we face today. They convene "study weeks" in which they address topics most people would rather run away from. Recently, study weeks have addressed signs of death, evolution, genetic engineering of plants, climate change and the cultural values of science.
Even though Francis Collins differs from Church teaching on sanctity of the beginnings of human life, that certainly does not disqualify him from giving the Church his scientific knowledge on genetics. Benedict has appointed a first-rate geneticist to his heavy hitting Academy of Sciences.
Hat Tip: Reflections of a Paralytic
Tuesday, October 6. 2009
Embryonic stem cell research has yet to treat any human patient for anything. The problems with tumor formation and possible rejection make embryonic stem cell treatments a long shot for treating patients. Some scientists believe it maybe "difficult to impossible" to ensure that embryonic stem cell cultures in the lab are free of abnormal cells. Meanwhile, adult stem cells are decades ahead in research and are already treating patients for a list of conditions as long as my arm.
Many argue that embryonic stem cell research is important because it is something called basic science. Basic science is science that is simply for investigational purposes. As opposed to practical science that has a practical purpose in mind like treating patient for a specific condition. Some ESC supporters argue that we need to federally fund embryonic stem cell research even if they never are used to treat patients because the basic science is important. They hold that the information we can learn justifies the destruction of human life.
In the United States, taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research comes from the National Institutes of Health, better known as the NIH. The head of the NIH is Francis Collins who is as famous for his scientific accomplishments as his outspoken Evangelical faith. In this piece in the New York Times, Collins urges scientists to consider clinical applications for their research. Collins said:
So if the NIH is NOT the National Institutes of Basic Sciences, then why is it funding embryonic stem cell research?
There is a disturbing trend in science and medicine. If you don't like it or it doesn't fit what you want, just redefine it. This has been done before, but recently I have seen it more and more. When scientists wanted to harvest cells from week old human embryos, they called them pre-embryos, batches of cells or fertilized eggs. None of which are really accurate. When scientists wanted to cloned human embryos for research they called them altered eggs or cloned cells. Some even denied that the cloning process was cloning at all.
Even Francis Colllins, the God-fearing scientist at the head of the NIH, holds that somehow a cloned embryo is different than an IVF embryo even though both give rise to adult organisms in animals. I will let you in on a secret: They are not really different. (I mean they are called clones for a reason.) It is just easier to justify creating a human life for research if you call it something else.
My favorite has to be the IVF doctors in the UK that redefined conception to assuage the concerns of parents asking for preimplantation genetic diagnosis. They said that the embryos they were testing for genetic diseases hadn't been conceived yet.
When we marginalize the beginning of life with redefinitions to make it easier to harvest desirable biological material, the same is bound to happen at the end of life and all points in between. Wesley J. Smith, in his piece Killing for Organs, discusses how an editorial at Nature wants to redefine death to make harvesting organs for transplant easier:
That definitely seems to be the modus operandi these days, we "accommodate wrong behavior by redefining it as right." And where is that going to end up? Smith knows:
Instead, Nature descends into rank relativism, arguing that “the legal details of declaring death in someone who will never again be the person he or she was should be weighed against the value of giving a full and healthy life to someone who will die without transplant.”
Sometimes scientists make me laugh. I have no problem with evolution as a theory as long as it is not used to "explain" things beyond its scope. The theory of evolution does not negate the possibility that the universe was created by a higher power.
Evolution is often described by scientists as something that has liberated mankind from the tyranny of religion. Imagine my surprise when I found this quote from a synthetic biologist talking about, of all things, the tyranny of evolution. Biopolitical Times has excerpts of an interview with Drew Endy, a Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford, where Endy muses:
So let me get this straight. According to evolutionists, humans are not exceptional. We are just animals that have evolved from other animals. The product of random mutations that occurred over millions of years. Things like social behavior and monogamy and love can all be explained away by evolutionary biology. This liberates us from the tyranny of religion and morals and other non-scientific stuff. Yet, at the same time, we have the potential to guide our own evolution, unlike any other species. At this point, the randomness of evolution itself becomes a tyranny.
Wait. I think I am getting it: Something that stands in the way of science doing whatever it wants, whether that be religion or nature, is a tyranny. Yep. Got it.
Friday, October 2. 2009
Earlier this year the Associated Press reported that Germany is going to pass strict rules on genetic testing. The new regulations state that only doctors can order genetic tests. This basically outlaws any direct-to-consumer or DTC genetic testing. This means that if a person wants to know anything about their genetic make-up, they have to go through a doctor. These regulations also prohibit prenatal tests for anything other than medical reasons. So parents would be barred from using genetic testing to find out the sex of their child or to determine if their child has a genetic predisposition to adult disease.
The reason Germany has put such restrictive laws in place is clear. The specter of the eugenics movement that set the Holocaust in motion is still fresh in the German psyche. They are trying to put the brakes on a new eugenics movement that puts humans, especially the unborn, at risk of being marginalized as "defective" or "undesirable" because their genetics.
It is a noble goal, but the execution is flawed. I agree with Daniel MacArthur at Genetic Future. This is a misguided attempt at controlling genetic discrimination. But my reasons are a bit different.
The real problem here is not the really the testing. It is the way the testing is used by a society that does not uphold the sanctity of life. The government is clearly worried about parents using information like sex and genetic predisposition to things like obesity and cancer to abort their children if they are undesirable. They are also concerned with society branding those with genetic predisposition to disease as defective or inferior. But let us look at the real problem: a lack of protection and respect for all human life. If abortion was not legal then these tests wold simply provide information. It is abortion and the subsequent lack of respect for human life that is the evil. Let us put the moral blame where it belongs.
This is similar to an Australian conservative that wants to ban an over the counter, non-invasive test that tells you the sex of your baby as early as 10 weeks:
It is not the test that is "allowing eugenics." It is the practice of abortion for any reason. How about banning abortion instead of an over-the-counter test that does not harm the fetus in any way? The Church is clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with prenatal testing, as long as it is not done with abortion in mind. It is the availability of abortion and the intent to use it that makes any prenatal testing immoral.
In fact, these new German laws will really do nothing to prevent eugenics in the prenatal arena because prenatal genetic testing is still allowed for so-called "medical reasons" like testing for Downs, cystic fibrosis, and spinal muscular atrophy. Parents can find out about and abort for these conditions if they so desire.
Restricting the information you can discover with genetic testing and how you can access it just puts a cartoon band aid on a gapping wound. The problem is a society that does not value and respect all human life whatever the stage.
This is a tough arena for us as Catholics. There are many Catholics who would be happy to shut down any progress in genetics and biotechnology simply because it might be used to marginalize our fellow man. It is true that this may happen, but it is also true that genetics and biotechnology have the potential to help a great many people. Rejecting it all as unethical is the wrong approach. We need to keep putting the blame where it rightfully belongs: a society (and government) that allows abortion-on-demand, a society (and government) that embraces tossing out embryos if they fail the genetic test and a society that thinks that a certain genetic make-up makes some people less desirable than others.
To paint advances in genetics and biotechnology as unethical, even if they are not inherently immoral just because they might be used for ill, will not advance the cause of the sanctity of life. It will only shut us out of the discussions on the ethics of advancements like preimplantation genetic diagnosis and genetic enhancement that are inherently immoral. It will shut us out of places where Catholic wisdom and guidance are sorely needed.
Because we have such a clear and consistent teaching on the sanctity of human life, I contend that it is our duty as Catholics to embrace what is good in genetics and biotechnology for the good of humanity and in doing so make clear where the ethical lines need to be drawn.
This PSA from CatholicVoteAction.org challenges the idea that the smartest, most compassionate thing to do is let the federal government reform health care. I mean what would do without celebrities telling us how to think? I know personally, I would be lost...
From the BBC:
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