Time to Be Clear Re Definition of the Human Embryo in OAR/ANT Research

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright May 11, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

Yes, let's be clear -- very clear. Science has known for over a hundred years (Wilhelm His, 1883-5) what a human embryo is and that if reproduced sexually it begins to exist at fertilization. The Carnegie Stages have clarified for many decades that such an embryo begins at the BEGINNING of the process of fertilization, when the sperm penetrates the oocyte. [Stage One includes the organism from penetration until the first mitotic division of the zygote). In asexual human reproduction (e.g., naturally occurring monozygotic "twinning" in utero, and artificially occurring by IVF centers for "infertility treatments" in vitro), it has been know for decades that the first twin begins sexually at fertilization; the second twin begins when/if the natural biological process of "regulation" has deprogrammed the separated totipotent cell's DNA back to that of a single-cell human organism called the human zygote (a new human being). (See O'Rahilly and Muller 2001). In "nuclear transfer", the new cloned human being likewise begins to exist when factors in the donor oocyte "regulate" or reprogram the cell's donor DNA back to that of a zygote. (See Strachan and Read 1998). Not new.

It is not that we should all still be worried about the "vagueness" of what a human embryo is and when it begins to exist; all one has to do is go to the library and look it up (now, how many out there have done that?). It is, rather, that politics and deceit -- on both sides of the aisles, for "utilitarian" or other purposes -- have convinced the public that they are confused and doubtful. In both OAR and ANT, it would take more than changing a few genes to make the product NOT a human embryo; and "regulation" would probably undo those genetic "errors" anyway during nuclear transfer. These processes essentially involve producing a disabled human embryo, a disabled human being, but a human embryo and a human being none-the-less. Want to see the scientific references, all in concert with the international nomenclature (or not)? See Irving:


Human Events
May 11, 2006

by Jaydee Hanson and Patrick F. Fagan

Definition of the Embryo: Time to Be Clear, Very Clear

What is an embryo? This is a basic biological question that involves more than mere biology. Unfortunately the definition, rather than getting clearer, may be getting fuzzier in the current bioethics debate that is raging from the halls of Congress to the battleground state of Missouri.

The defining of the word embryo, however, cannot be confined just to biological sciences alone. Rather, the philosophical premises (their conception of the nature of man) held by scientists come into play. Some scientists are side-stepping the human implications of the term 'embryo' by substituting technical terms such as 'blastocyst' or 'totipotent.' Such Orwellian distortions by scientists who are utilitarian is no surprise but what is surprising is that some right-to-life advocates may be taken with a similar strategy.

Some right-to-life proponents of a technique called 'altered nuclear transfer' or 'oocyte assisted reprogramming' (ANT-OAR) claim that this technique does not really create an embryo but rather directly creates embryonic stem cells. However, this technique is remarkably similar to human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer). In somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus of a body cell is placed into an egg that has had its chromosomes removed. This creates a cloned embryo. All agree on this.

The ANT-OAR process on the other hand first genetically engineers a body cell nucleus and then uses that altered nucleus to replace the nucleus of a human egg. What is in contention is whether this creates a cloned, albeit defective, embryo because the genetic engineering makes this 'embryo' incapable of developing the tissues that form the placenta, which is necessary for the embryo's survival in the womb. Proponents of ANT-OAR argue that because the defective 'embryo' cannot ever develop into a child, then it is not an embryo. While it may never become a born child, that does not make it a non-embryo. There are convents of nuns dedicated to taking care of children who look most unhuman, even are monster-like, but are real human beings nonetheless. They die early for they cannot develop into mature adults. The situation with these ANT-OAR engineered cells may be analogous, and is no basis on which to define what constitutes an embryo or not.

Defining such a cloned ANT-OAR defective embryo as a 'non-embryo' does not necessarily make it so. Proponents have a test to see if it is an embryo - if it survives it is, if it does not it is not. By such a test the deformed children above, cared for in special convents, would not be human. But they are. Just as we should not define the children cared for by the nuns as 'non-human,' neither should we define these cloned creatures as 'non-embryos'.

Also defining such a cloned ANT-OAR defective embryo as a 'non-embryo' has the potential to promote the practice of defining other embryos as 'non-embryos.' Sadly, this is already happening. This fall, Missourians will vote on a ballot initiative that purports to ban human cloning, and many who will vote for such a ban may think they are protecting human life. But the initiative does no such thing, because it redefines cloning as the process of implanting 'anything other than the product of fertilization of an egg of a human female by a sperm of a human male for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy that could result in the creation of a human fetus, or the birth of a human being.' Hence, under this definition of 'cloning', cloning is actually permittedif not officially sanctionedbut it becomes a crime to let a cloned human embryo live. Thus we would not mind creating them; we just don't want them to live. Moreover, since a cloned embryo would not be easily distinguishable from other embryos, in practice preventing implantation would be difficult, if not impossible.

We need to slow down and have this definition thought through carefully so as not to make a mistake at this foundational stage of this development in applied science. When experts are so fuzzy there is no way that the lay voter can make a clear and well-informed decision.

How far can this fuzzy newspeak go? What about a 'non-embryo' that is genetically engineered to develop without a brain, but with functioning fetal organs? Is that a 'non-embryo' from which we are allowed to harvest organs? Such is the specter the human race could be facing with this strategy, and many could be led at this stage to think that this is totally compatible with honoring human nature and protecting the dignity of human beings.

In the politically charged debate over destructive human embryonic stem cell research, proponents of ANT-OAR cloning have found sympathetic ears on Capitol Hill. Federal funding for these kinds of experiments is being considered in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. While the intent of the authors of the legislation is to find an ethical means of producing human embryonic stem cells, these measures, upon further reflection, fail the ethical tests of many conservatives and progressives, and especially fail the test of clear thinking and clear language. Ordinary citizens need to be able to follow this debate. If it gets so technical that they cannot, then the entire nation can be hoodwinked. It is time to slow down.

How far can this go? ANT-OAR still requires large numbers of eggs to be extracted from women, at a significant risk to their health. Moreover, if this experiment were to be performed with human eggs and human cells, it would be the first sanctioned use of genetic engineering to redesign the human species should this really be a human embryo. Also, in fact, there is little research on the long-term effects of this genetic engineering on the functioning of the resultant embryonic stem cells.

It is a short step from working on 'altered,' cloned embryos to working on other cloned embryos. This danger of taking such steps is especially so when definitions are fuzzy and little understood.

'Festine lente' the old Latin adage is very much needed here. Hasten slowly. Debate and clarify again and again till it is all very clear and the layman understands it. Then the citizens will know what is at stake. At this stage very few have any idea of the momentous nature of what is potentially contained in these bills. On this issue politicians are laymen also, not specialists.

The right-to-life community, along with some liberal / progressive groups, has long championed the opposition to both human cloning and human genetic engineering that makes an object of a human person. It would be ironic if their support for ANT-OAR ended up with a redefining of the human embryo and a redesigning of the human species. Such is the danger. Festine lente.

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