A Critique of Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT) and
Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR)
By Dolores Meehan
One does not need to be an expert in genetics or embryology to critically evaluate the science and the metaphysics behind Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT) and Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR). A modest background in the physical and biological sciences coupled with years of defending the dignity of nascent human life in the anti-abortion movement, are sufficient to critique these theories. Consequently, at first glance, the proposal of ANT and OAR offended my pro-life instincts as well as my pro-poor instincts. The idea that an organism can be classified as a non-embryo but embryo-like entity is hauntingly familiar to the argument that early life within the womb is simply a ‘clump of cells’. Secondly, the use of women’s eggs for medical research is morally questionable. Finally, the demand for women’s eggs in these two proposals raises the concern that women, specifically poor and disabled women, will be objectified in the process of procuring (their) eggs.
I have read and studied the materials on these two theories, including but not limited to the White Paper, “Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells”, submitted to U.S. President George Bush by the President’s Council on Bioethics.
The number of otherwise pro-life ethicists, theologians, doctors and scientists who have publicly embraced these two theories alarms me. So far there have been only a handful of Catholic experts who have publicly challenged them, along with Dr. David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at Family Research Council, formerly Professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics for Indiana University School of Medicine.
What is Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT)? What is Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR)?
Both ANT and OAR, according to their proponents, can create embryo-like/non-embryo organisms or ‘biological artifacts’ that will be a source of human pluripotent stem cells. Both techniques depend on the procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) with one distinction. Before explaining the distinction, it is necessary to explain the process of SCNT itself. SCNT was the process used to clone Dolly the sheep. The nucleus of a cell contains DNA, the genetic code that acts roughly as its blueprint. In somatic cell nuclear transfer, a ripened ovum is taken from an organism and its nucleus is removed or destroyed. A somatic cell (a cell other than a sperm or egg cell) from the organism to be cloned is then removed. Its nucleus with its DNA is fused with the emptied egg. In this manner, a genetic twin is brought into being.
ANT proposes to use the exact same technique as SCNT with one distinction. A gene in the somatic cell will be ‘silenced’ in order to prevent the resulting ‘biological artifact’ from developing beyond the blastocyst stage of embryonic development. (The blastocyst stage is the point of embryonic development in which the pluripotent stem cells are first evident. It is also the stage where the embryo is capable of implantation.) In short, the silencing of this gene causes the ‘biological artifact’ to self-destruct.
OAR is a form of ANT that also relies on SCNT. Where ANT silences a gene, OAR causes a gene to be over-expressed. Nanog is one of the gene candidates that have been theorized to be a critical factor in the development of pluripotent stem cells. By over-expressing this gene in the somatic cell, proponents of OAR propose that the resulting ‘biological artifact’ of nuclear transfer would respond to this over-expression of Nanog by immediately producing pluripotent stem cells rather than a developing human embryo.
What’s wrong with this picture?
First, in the case of ANT, how is it possible to create a non-embryo but embryo-like organism that must function like a developing human embryo for the first 4-6 days of its life but is not an embryo? Do we define a human life as beginning at conception, or do we define a human life by its stage of prenatal development? Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics claims that because this ‘biological artifact’ cannot develop beyond 4-6 days, it is not a human embryo. (Never mind that the reason that it cannot develop beyond 4-6 days is because it has been genetically hobbled.)
Secondly, in the case of OAR, what was this ‘biological artifact’ prior to it immediately forming pluripotent cells? Although OAR does not require the embryo to develop beyond the single-cell stage, it still requires it to be a single-celled human being if only for a moment in time.
Do we change when life begins in order to support a scientific theory?
ANT has now been dismissed by its proponents in favor of OAR. (Apparently, there was some question that maybe nascent human life was being violated in that 4-to-6-day-old ‘biological artifact’.) However, the same experts who vehemently defended ANT are now vehemently defending OAR. Given the seriousness of tampering with nascent human life and what is at stake if we allow it, I find their moral reasoning to be suspect in this matter.
Where are they getting the eggs?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that no human life is formed in the OAR process. Let’s also assume that OAR successfully produces human pluripotent cells, that are not deformed in any way despite all of the genetic tampering, and that they treat/cure every disease known to mankind. What has happened? What has happened is that a near insatiable demand for women’s eggs has been created. It is nearly impossible to control the supply of a commodity once the demand has been established. We have only to look at the underground trafficking of illicit drugs to prove that point.
The first question that needs to be asked is whether or not it is moral to use a woman’s eggs to conceive “biological artifacts”, even if such a thing could be done? Is not the purpose of human eggs already a given that is not to be redefined to suit some purpose of modern science? But even if this teleological challenge could be overcome, we are still left with the question of whether or not eggs can be removed from women without harming their bodily integrity. Proponents of OAR insist that there are many means of egg procurement that do not involve subjecting women to the dangers of ovarian hyperstimulation (OHS). Even if this were the case, we are left with still another question. What will happen to the dignity of women if their very bodies come to be seen as a source for a commodity?
When Proposition 71 (a public referendum that called for state funding of somatic cell nuclear transfer for the purposes of medical research) was being argued in the State of California, feminist opponents claimed that cloning would create an insatiable demand for women’s eggs and that women would be turned into commodities. It was this fact alone that forged an unprecedented alliance between pro-abortion feminists and anti-abortion Catholics. Today, some of these same pro-life Catholics seem to have forgotten this basis for objecting to human somatic cell nuclear transfer. In fact, when a female Catholic moral theologian raised the moral dilemma of egg procurement, a leading male Catholic ethicist dismissively remarked, “There are lots of ways to get eggs now”. The following excerpt from the White Paper of the President’s Council on Bioethics describes these many ways to procure eggs.
There is, at least in theory, the possibility that human oocytes can be obtained not from women egg donors by superovulation but from ovaries surgically removed from patients or harvested from cadavers. The ooocyte precursors extracted from these ovaries could then be matured in vitro. Alternatively, the ovaries could be transplanted into animal hosts and eggs produced by hormonal stimulation of the animals.23 Research in this area is at a very preliminary stage. And the objections just noted to non-reproductive uses of human reproductive tissue could also be raised to obtaining eggs in these non-invasive ways, should they ever become possible.
The above excerpt proposes that instead of simply removing a woman’s eggs, her entire ovary can be removed. What woman is willing to give her ovaries for research? And even if she were willing to give them or sell them, would that make it right? If an insufficient number of women volunteer their ovaries, what other sources become available? The excerpt specifies ‘patients’. What patients – incapacitated patients? If an act of the U.S. Congress could not stop Terry Schiavo from being dehydrated to death by her husband simply because she did not have a piece of paper that stated that she did not want to be dehydrated to death, what chance is there that her ovaries will remain in her body if medical progress depends on them? What woman in an incapacitated state will be safe from this violation of her very essence as a woman? Already families are pressured to allow their loved ones on life support to be raided for their vital and other organs. If there is a shortage of women’s eggs in America, what is stopping the establishment of egg procurement clinics in poor countries? Certainly a poor woman with children in Mexico or Mozambique could be desperate enough to sell her eggs for a mere pittance regardless of the health hazards. In America, a woman is paid roughly $1,000 to $2,000 per egg. As with everything else that is procured or manufactured in the Third World, basic economics begs the question – why not go where it can be had for a cheaper price?
Another source of human eggs is late-term aborted females. In the same manner that ovaries removed from ‘patients’ and ‘cadavers’ would be matured in vitro, the ovaries of aborted women would be used. Scientists in Israel and the Netherlands are currently extracting the ovaries from late-term aborted females and attempting to mature their eggs in vitro.
Who will control this supply of eggs? Who will watch that women are not exploited?
The two most dangerous places to be in America are in a mother’s womb or in a hospital bed, lying unconscious with healthy organs. Do we further endanger vulnerable women by creating a market demand for their ovaries?
To take an artificially conceived human organism at the first moment of its existence and classify it not as a human embryo but as an embryo-like entity for the purposes of scientific research is a violation of that new human life. “The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of its existence”. The theory that human pluripotent cells could be obtained from a non-human being is flawed because “it would never be made human if it were not human already.” The use of women’s eggs for medical research is morally questionable. “Every human being is to be respected for himself, and cannot be reduced in worth as a pure and simple instrument for the advantage of others.” And finally, the demand for women’s eggs that would result from the acceptance and success of OAR raises the concern that women, specifically poor and disabled women, will be exploited in the process of procuring (their) eggs. Women’s body parts will be trafficked to meet the market demand for their eggs. For these reasons, I oppose the current theory of Altered Nuclear Transfer and Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming.
The process of ovarian hyperstimulation (OHS) is an intense regimen of hormone shots followed by an extremely uncomfortable egg harvesting procedure and poses the risk of impaired future fertility, stroke and even death. (Dangerous Human Egg Harvesting Targeted at Poor Women Is Costing Lives, Dr. Pia de Solenni, Human Events Online, July 27, 2005)
White Paper: Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells, The President's Council on Bioethics, Washington, D.C., May 2005