The Niche

Inconsistent Christian views on reprogramming

I’ve been reading the coverage on making embryonic-like stem cells without embryos in the religious press, and two quotes going through my mind, both sarcastic. One is “Shocked! Shocked!” (from Casablanca) and the other is “Oh, Lord! Make me pure, but not just yet.” (from St. Augustine).

On the “shocked! Shocked!” side are articles decrying the fact that cell lines derived from fetuses were used in the breakthroughs.

An article in the Christian Communication Network recently discussed in the Baptist press bemoans the fact that recent stem-cell breakthroughs relied on cell lines derived from abortions. Induced pluripotent human stem cells are specialized cells reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state using genetically engineered viruses rather than embryos. Their production was announced by three groups late last year. Cell lines derived from embryos, fetal tissue, and newborn tissue are easier to transform, for reasons that are still unclear, so researchers perfected techniques on these cell lines before attempting to reprogram cell lines from adults. Scientists have not glossed over this in the papers.

Update: The CCN link appears broken. But this link works.

I couldn’t figure out if I was cheered or dismayed by the article. At first, I was glad for a consistent viewpoint, namely that there should be no benefit from destruction of embryos or fetuses. But if this viewpoint were really consistent, those with religious objections to ES cell research should never have hailed the breakthrough in the first place. The reason scientists even knew how to attempt reprogramming efforts on non-embryonic cells was because of all the study of embryonic stem cells. Have objectors forgotten that one of the breakthrough scientists, Jamie Thomson, also was the first to derive human embryonic stem cell lines?

On the other side are arguments that embryonic stem cell research is now immoral because it is “no longer” necessary. See this from the Catholic news service. Many (but not all) people who make this argument had maintained that embryonic stem cell research was useless and would never lead to cures. They argued that it never was necessary, so why did the breakthroughs garner such praise?

To fully understand the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, scientists want to study them side-by-side embryonic stem cells. How does this stand up to the “no longer necessary argument”? When the differences are catalogued, will that be the point when the research is no longer necessary? Can we define all the questions, really before we start asking? This “no longer necessary” argument reminds me of St. Augustine’s request for purity, just not yet. Scientists have, in fact argued, that ES research will become less and less necessary because scientists are going to pick the easiest cells to work with that will still answer their questions. And if ES cells have greater therapeutic potential than iPS cells (an open question), that time may not come.

In my opinion, people who object to human embryonic stem cell research are reluctant to face the fact that opposition to this research means potentially giving up therapies. People who believe an unimplanted embryo is a human life deserving of protection should argue for the sanctity of embryos rather than against the potential of the embryonic stem-cell research. I thought we had a very thoughtful discussion of that in a commentary about a month before the iPS breakthrough came out. It’s from a scientist who doesn’t want to destroy any more embryos for research, and his arguments still apply.

Also, I would really like someone to explain to me why people who get very energized to oppose human embryonic stem cell research are not so energized about opposing in vitro fertilization, which kills embryos through disposal or harms them through freezing.

Also, why aren’t more people interested in the new ethical problems raised by iPS cells?

In fact, some scientists are being quite vocal about ethical worries of the potential of both iPS cells and ES cells to be made into viable human egg and sperm. No one’s reported doing this in humans yet, but there’s no known technical reason why it shouldn’t work. That would mean that a single person could be both genetic mother and father to another, for example. Or that the donor of a skin biopsy could unwittingly become genetic mother or father to someone else. This is an issue our society needs to thrash out, and I think it would be a more productive debate than the debate over human embryonic stem cells, where opinions are more-or-less settled.

BTW2: Here’s a bit of a pet peeve. The article that tries to get into scientific details garbles the science:

“There are other ethical ways to produce the DNA needed for transformation, efficiently and morally,” said Dr Deisher. “If these means were employed to produce the needed DNA, there would be no moral issues with the use of reprogrammed adult cells for research.” The transformative DNA comes from engineered viruses, and though fetal cell lines were used to develop the techniques that are applied to reprogramming adult cells, they are not used for the reprogramming itself.

(BTW: By naming the source of the article, I don’t want to be guilty of representing Christians as monolithic. Plenty of Christians support embryonic stem cell research. See our commentary by Ted Peters , for example.)


Comments are closed.