.- A recent experiment cloning human embryos for potential stem cell use did little to advance a medical breakthrough and violated human life, Catholic experts said in reaction to the news.
“The attitudes of the scientists involved,” said Fr. Thomas Berg, head of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, show a “profound disrespect for the goods inherent to natural procreation and a demeaning of human life.”
In an experiment publicized Oct. 5 in the scientific journal “Nature,” scientists created 13 early-stage human embryos that were partial genetic clones of diabetic patients.
Each embryo carried an extra set of chromosomes—three instead of two—which led the researchers to say the embryos were abnormal and would not have been viable if implanted in a womb.
In order for the technique to potentially create usable stem cells to treat diseases, scientists would have to eliminate the extra set of chromosomes to effectively create an embryonic human clone.
Though the study sparked intense media interest, Catholics in the fields of science and bioethics are warning against potential “hype,” saying that the experiment not only fails to mark a significant development but also signals a blatant disrespect for human life.
“In some restricted sense it is a 'breakthrough' to the extent that it constitutes a tweak to the cloning process,” said Fr. Berg, who is also a professor of Moral Theology from New York's St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.
However, he added, “in terms of eventual therapeutic uses, it would appear there is little to no benefit.”
Fr. Berg explained that human cloning as an avenue for stem-cell based therapies has become “a scientific side-show” in the past few years and is rapidly losing the interest and appeal “that once captivated the biotech world.”
“This novel experiment does nothing to change that,” he said, “on the contrary, it simply highlights just how non-mainstream the cloning enterprise has become in the world of stem-cell science.”
Fr. Berg said that the study ultimately provides no practical help for people with illnesses “in any foreseeable future,” and that the media coverage surrounding it hearkens “back to the stem-cell hype of the past mid-decade.”
“That decade demonstrated in spades that such hype was no service to persons who hope to benefit therapeutically today from stem cell science,” he remarked. “The only place that is happening actively is in the arena of adult stem cell research.”
Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale University and education director for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, agrees.
In an Oct. 6 interview, he said that although researchers are now able to get a “variant” of a cloned human embryo to grow for a longer time period, the development “is of doubtful significance to the human embryonic stem cell project.”
Even more problematic, he added, is that the researchers claim to be creating “defective” embryos, but “defective embryos are still embryos and likely to be human beings.”
Fr. Pacholczyk explained that most naturally-occurring “triploid” (extra chromosome) human embryos do not progress completely through development because of their serious abnormalities.
“However, some will make it to term and can be born alive, generally only surviving for a short time,” he said. “Given these facts, such embryos should not be created for the purposes of harvesting them for stem cells.”
“Using human beings with disabilities or defects for research experiments is just as reprehensible as using healthy human beings,” he underscored.
“Perhaps it is actually more objectionable, since one is taking advantage of the specific weakness and vulnerability of another human in order to satisfy one's own goals.”
But it's not only embryos that are ethically violated in this situation—it's also women, Fr. Pacholczyk noted.
He said that the recent cloning experiment, like all human cloning, require women's eggs, and that raises two concerns: risks to women's health and coercion of women by offering payment for their eggs.
Significant risks to women who donate eggs involve superovulation and ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause abdominal pain, blood clots, strokes, kidney failure and other life-threatening conditions.
He also documented that women consistently refuse to donate eggs for research experiments if asked to do so voluntarily. Unless they are coerced by large sums of money—thousands of dollars in most cases—they won't typically donate.
“Such monetary coercion is ethically unacceptable,” Fr. Pacholczyk stressed.
For Fr. Berg, the issue that tops the list of ethical problems with the recent experiment is that it is another example of human sexuality being reduced and demeaned.
“The fundamental ethical problems in this experiment are the same as those underlying human cloning: violation of the values inherent to human sexuality.”
This study attempted “the creation of human life apart from the act of human procreation in the proper context of marital union—the crass conceptual reduction of human life to the level of 'useful' laboratory material,” he explained.
Fr. Pacholczyk took issue with the secular media coverage of the experiment, noting that “when the media covers stories like this they have an obligation to discuss the ethics carefully.”
“If science is permitted to operate without a correct moral compass, it becomes a danger to society, and the media can serve as a major force for curtailing such ethical abuses.”
“We have a duty as a society to be informed about any morally problematic research that scientists may be undertaking,” he said, “especially when our tax money may be involved in funding such studies and when such studies appear to involve direct exploitation of early-stage human beings.”
Markus Grompe, M.D. and professor of Molecular and Medical genetics at Oregon Health and Science University, summed up the problem in an Oct. 6 e-mail to CNA.
“Obviously nobody has successfully generated cloned human embryos before, however defective,” he said. However, “this new method does not have any medical applications or relevance.”
“The reason this is getting so much attention is not because it is a scientific breakthrough, which it isn't, but because they cloned human embryos, albeit useless for even disease studies in the dish,” Grompe added.
“They violated human life for nothing.”