Re: Count sheep, anyone?

Loren Haarsma (lhaarsma@OPAL.TUFTS.EDU)
Tue, 04 Mar 1997 10:59:44 -0500 (EST)

Janet Rice asked:
>Loren wrote:
>>Here's a scenario which seems much more probable: using cloning
>>techniques to grow fetal-like tissue for medical applications. Already,
>>fetal tissue is being experimented with as a treatment for certain
>>medical conditions (e.g. for re-growing damaged brain cells). It could
>>be argued, medically, that the best tissue for this would be tissue with
>>identical DNA to the patient. So, take DNA from one of the patient's
>>cells, treat it and insert it into an ennucleated donated human egg
>>cell, induce it to start dividing, grow it in vitro for a while, and
>>transplant the appropriate cells back into the patient.
>What I would ask is that since this procedure does not involve traditional
>egg/sperm conception, then would this be an acceptable alternative than the
>fetal tissue work currently being done? If I understand correctly what
>Loren is postulating, this procedure eliminates the need to use a human
>embryo and is simply using the patient's own cells in a new way.

IMO, if it is wrong to experiment upon, use, and discard a developing
human embryo created by in vitro fertilization, then it would be wrong
to experiment upon, use, and discard an embryo created by such a "cloning"

As you know, some countries do not allow experimentation on in vitro
embryos. Other countries do allow (or have in the past allowed)
experimentation up to some definite time post-conception, 14 days being
a typical number.

Most Christians would draw "the moral line" at conception. (Caveat: it
is usually overly simplistic to talk about a single "moral line" on
issues where morality and public policy meet. But I'm going to stick
with that simplification for this letter.) The justification is usually
expressed this way: Whether by in vitro fertilization or cloning
techniques, if there is any chance that the resulting embryo could, if
implanted, grow naturally to maturity, then it should be treated with the
utmost respect. It should be treated as human life, not as human tissue.

This seems a prudent place to draw "the moral line." But as you know,
future technology and discoveries continually blur any lines we draw.
We should be ready for this. The idea of "conception," and the
formulation "... if allowed to develop naturally it would grow into a
human person," are no longer as distinct as we might like. I've got
some examples of how this might get blurred.

1. One way to do in vitro screening for fatal genetic abnormalities is
to allow the fertilized egg to grow in vitro to the eight-cell
blastomere stage, remove two cells, and screen them. If the embryo does
not have the genetic abnormality, the remaining six cells can be further
grown, implanted, and allowed to develop. Most Protestants, I expect,
will not have a problem with this procedure. The complicating factor
is, experiments have been done in cattle where an eight-cell blastomere
is split, and each half is implanted separately. Both halves grew
normally and each produced a baby calf. So it is entirely possible that
when those two cells are removed from a human blastomere for genetic
screening, if allowed to develop on their own, they might have
the capacity to grow to maturity. So as soon as you remove those two
cells from the other six, have you created a new human life?

2. Back to cloning. It is entirely possible that the procedure
postulated at the beginning of this letter could be modified a bit so
that it would *not* be possible for this procedure to produce a viable
embryo. (One "crude" way would be to include a retrovirus with the
donated DNA which would interrupt the normal developmental program at
some stage. There are probably subtler ways to accomplish this.) Would
this alter the procedure's moral status?

I hope these two cases make you as uncomfortable as they make me. In
the first example we have a procedure which many would like to see
allowed, but which violates "the moral line" as formulated above. In
the second example, we have a procedure with which I am *not*
comfortable, but which does not technically violate that moral line as

Some might be prompted by this to re-draw the line to disallow in vitro
procedures. Others might be prompted to re-draw the line to allow in
vitro experimentation on embryos up to a certain point under certain
conditions. Others might leave the line drawn just where it is, and
amend the traditional formulation to deal with new cases as they arise.

Obviously, we need to draw moral lines somewhere. My point is that we
have to be ready to re-formulate how we express them as cloning
techniques and other reproductive technologies develop. "Conception" is
no longer going to be a singular, well-defined term. That means we have
to continually wrestle with the underlying principles.

Loren Haarsma