Focus on the Embryo

Barcelona, Spain | January 23-25, 2009

How to distinguish between a human cell with the moral status of a human person, and one without personhood in order to ethically assess new methods of therapy and research involving stem cells.

Reprogramming adult somatic cells makes it possible to produce induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Like the embryonic stem (ES) cells, iPS cells can give rise to any cell type of the body, but in contrast to ES cells, obtaining iPS cells does not require the destruction of human embryos. Many leading stem cell scientists are turning to the iPS cells technique, which is even questioning the utility of ES cell research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless iPS cells are opening the door to other big ethical challenges. It has been observed that it is theoretically possible to transform iPS cells into “artificial” sperm and eggs. If this were to become routine, gametes could be combined at will and embryos could be grown in culture like other cell lines.  They would then more easily become objectified and invite genetic selection. 

Using iPS cells for such developments will surely fuel the discussion about the moral status of human embryos. Scholars at this meeting recognized the importance of studying more in depth some unsolved queries regarding the moral status of cell entities. After the achievements with iPS cells it no longer makes sense to propose ANT, parthenotes or dead embryos as alternative methods for deriving stem cells. The key question becomes instead how to distinguish between a human cell with the moral status of a human person, and one without personhood in order to ethically assess new methods of therapy and research involving stem cells.

Discussants

José Manual Giménez Amaya - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Benjamin Hurlbut - Harvard University
David Albert Jones - St. Mary's University College
Calum MacKellar - Scottish Council on Human Bioethics
Luis Montuenga - University of Navarra
Enrique Prat - University of Salzburg
Josephine Quintavalle - CORE
Pablo Requena - Pontifical University of the Holy Cross
Russell Wilcox - Thomas More Institute

Academic Leader

Antoine Suarez - Center for Quantum Philosophy

Principal Inquiries

  • Are cell entities that carry genomic defects that prevent implantation sick embryos or non-embryos?
  • Is implantation decisive for the moral status of the human embryo?
  • Do new discovered epigenetic mechanisms in the 2-cell stage support the individuality of the human embryo?
  • Are cell entities that stop dividing and developing dead embryos?  How can the death of an embryo be defined?
  • How can we ascertain a personal presence in a cellular entity?
  • How can we determine the moral status of transgenic (human-animal hybrid) cellular material, and the biological status of the products of altered nuclear transfer?

Speakers

Nicanor Austriaco - Providence College
Complete Moles and Parthenotes are Not Organisms: A Reply to Pietro Ramelllini

Neville Cobbe - University of Edinburg
Crazy Chimeras?  Interspecies Mixtures and the Status of Humanity

Maureen Condic - University of Utah
Pre-implantation Stages of Human Development:  the Biological and Moral Status of Early Embryos

Joachim Huarte - University of Geneva
Embryos Grown in Culture Deserve the Same Moral Status as Embryos After Implantation: A Proposal for a New Experimental Test

William B. Hurlbut - Stanford University
The Boundaries of Humanity: the Ethics of Human-Animal Chimeras in Cloning and Stem Cell Research

Manfred Spieker - Osnabrück University
Between Freedom of Research and Protection of the Embryo: The Debate About Bioethics in Germany

Antoine Suarez - Center for Quantum Philosophy
Embryos Grown in Culture Deserve the Same Moral Status as Embryos After Implantation: A Proposal for a New Experimental Test

Helen Watt - Anscombe Bioethics Centre
Altered Nuclear Transfer: Identifying Embryos; Respecting Procreation

Paper Abstracts

Maureen Condic - University of Utah
Pre-implantation Stages of Human Development: the Biological and Moral Status of Early Embryos

There is currently no consensus on when human life begins, and consequently, both the biological and moral status of early human embryos is unclear. Legislative bodies of different countries have defined the beginning of human life quite differently, resulting in widely differing degrees of legal protection for early stages of human life. Here, the biological facts concerning early human development are examined to establish a scientific view of when human life begins. The evidence clearly indicates that a new human organism (i.e. a human being) is formed at the point of sperm-egg fusion, an event taking less than a second. The events occurring during preimplantation development provide further support for the conclusion that the early embryo is an organism, rather than a mere human cell or collection of human cells. The status of the zygote as a complete organism is contrasted to that of human pluripotent stem cells, that are best understood as parts of an organism. Although the scientific facts unambiguously establish when a human being comes into existence, they do not directly address the central ethical questions surrounding human embryos: what value ought society place on human life at early developmental stages, and when should a developing human being be considered a human person who is the subject of human rights? Two common arguments for assigning human rights to developing human beings are outlined and their logical implications briefly discussed, in light of the scientific facts regarding human development.

Nicanor Austriaco - Providence College
Complete Moles and Parthenotes are Not Organisms: A Reply to Pietro Ramelllini

In this paper, I argue that the ontological status of moles, parthenotes, and other embryo-like entities that develop into tumors will depend upon two distinctions, the distinction between an active and a passive potential and the distinction between a whole and a part. I propose that an embryo-like entity that has an active potential to become a tumor in the whole (such entities would include complete hydatidiform moles and parthenotes) is a non-embryo, while an entity that only has an active potential to become a tumor only in the part (such entities would include partial hydatidiform moles) is an embryo, albeit a disabled one. Finally, I suggest that an inner cell mass taken from an intact blastocyst is a non-organism that is not unlike an isolated cluster of pluripotent stem cells.

Joachim Huarte - University of Geneva, and
Antoine Suarez - Center for Quantum Philosophy
Embryos Grown in Culture Deserve the Same Moral Status as Embryos After Implantation: A Proposal for a New Experimental Test

Reprogramming somatic adult cells makes it possible to obtain induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) that are equivalent to embryonic stem cells (ESCs) without the necessity of destroying human embryos. However, proposed techniques for deriving gametes from iPS cells are giving rise to new and unexpected ethical challenges. These challenges originate from a new formulation of arguments that negate the moral status of the human embryo. So, it is argued that if embryos can be grown in culture like any other cell line, they deserve the same status as any other type of cell line, that is, they will become objects and will be used as objects. Another challenge relates to the generation of mice fully derived from iPS cells through tetraploid complementation. This achievement shows the possibility of using reprogramming to achieve new cloning techniques.
To face these new ethical challenges we introduce the concept of proper biological potential for developing a body exhibiting human architecture and spontaneous motility and further propose that personhood can be ascertained on the basis of this proper biological potential. We then argue that the embryo’s proper biological potential for developing the neural activity responsible for fetal motility is not determined by implantation and so embryos grown in culture deserve the same moral status as the embryos after implantation. Additionally, we articulate our philosophical reasons for our support of the clinical criteria for defining death and our support of the criterion of DIANA insufficiencies (insufficiencies that directly inhibit the appearance of neural activity) for distinguishing between disabled embryos and non-embryos. The possibility of using reprogramming as a new form of cloning increases the interest of the DIANA criterion. The discussion will highlight that for settling certain arguments a new experiment in animal models may be of interest.

Manfred Spieker - Osnabrück University
Between Freedom of Research and Protection of the Embryo: The Debate About Bioethics in Germany

The paper analyzes the political, philosophical, and social conflict between two undeniable goods: “freedom of research” and “embryonic protection”. The frame of reference for Spieker’s discussion is the contemporary debate over embryonic experimentation in Germany. Spieker identifies the relevant historical and legal particularities of the German debate, but also attempts to highlight how the issue has been framed by different parties to that debate. The result is an interesting study in how the particularities of a country’s social and political history can help to frame the debate over the moral status of human embryos and the limits of science in interesting and complex ways.

Neville Cobbe - University of Edinburg
Crazy Chimeras? Interspecies Mixtures and the Status of Humanity

Cobbe discusses the claim that inter-species mixing undermines the uniqueness of being human and discusses various features of human life that allegedly mark it off from non-human life. By surveying a host of literature on the subject, Cobbe’s contribution gives the reader a comprehensive survey and introduction to the scientific and ethical discussion surrounding hyrbidization. In the end, he concludes that there is no “smoking gun” to which we can attribute human uniqueness, but rather that one ought to consider Man’s uniqueness in a holistic way by viewing the various dimensions held together in humans. He advocates this view as opposed to the view that there might be only one distinctive feature that sets humans apart from non-humans.


William B. Hurlbut - Stanford University
The Boundaries of Humanity: the Ethics of Human-Animal Chimeras in Cloning and Stem Cell Research

Hurlbut discusses recent proposals for human-animal hyrbidization/experimentation, reflecting on what kind of moral controversies they are bound to bring into focus. Hurlbut formulates a list of specific public policy proposals for guiding such research as well as articulating some general moral principles from which these proposals derive. In all, his is a reflection of the significance of human “architecture” for persons, science, and society.