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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

An embryo by any other name?

The battle over stem cell research begins with language


The line penned by Gertrude Stein, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” is often quoted. But I wonder if those who repeat the line realize that a rose of Sharon is actually a hibiscus and a rose moss is actually a portulaca -- to name just two “roses” that aren’t.

My point is that what we name or assume something to be and what it is are not necessarily the same. That fact is critical to the thorny debate over what is currently called “embryonic” stem cell research.

On the one hand, opponents of embryonic stem cell research speak about “tiny embryos” as though we could put microscopic booties on them. On the other hand, proponents insist that these are just undifferentiated “cells” that do not yet have the status of personhood.

For people like me, concerned equally that no ghoulish, slippery slope experimentation take place and also that cures be found for afflicted children and adults, the debate is troubling. While it is tempting to shrug off the issue as “not my area of expertise,” the fact that the issue is being legislated causes me to try to understand as objectively as possible what’s involved. Not so easy, as evidenced by the recent split between Senate Majority Leader William Frist and President George W. Bush on this issue. Well-credentialed, passionate scientists and bioethicists also line up on both sides of the debate.

No one disputes that a fertilized egg contains the genetic building blocks needed to develop into a human being. But opinions blossom into full-blown disagreement on the difference in moral status, if any, between “embryo” and “blastocyst.” The latter occurs three to five days after fertilization when the fertilized egg forms a ball of dividing cells with an interior cluster of malleable, undifferentiated “stem” cells.

“When we began to talk about this, no one ever conceived that the egg and sperm would come together on a laboratory bench. So the term embryo was used to describe the fertilized egg. Now we’ve put it in the laboratory. Should we call it … a blastocyst? Some would argue an embryo is an embryo and deserves protection,” said Dr. Gary Pettett, a practicing neonatologist and program associate of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo. “Others believe that that fertilized mass sitting in a freezer becomes an embryo when it is implanted and begins its trip of potential human development. … The crux of the conundrum we have right now: coming to a uniform definition of embryo.”

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, explains: “An embryo in a dish is more like a set of instructions or blueprint for a house. It carries the information, but it can’t build the house. For the cells to develop into a human being requires an interactive process in the uterus between the embryo and the mother.”

That’s the kicker. Unless and until the fertilized egg implants into the triggering and life-supporting environment of a human uterus (approximately five to seven days after fertilization) or a yet- to-be-developed mechanical womb, it cannot go beyond the blastocyst stage.

As Dr. Pettett puts it, “If you were to leave that fertilized blastocyst in the petri dish and provide it with nutrients and go away for a trip to the beach, you won’t come back and find your son or daughter in the petri dish. We can’t grow humans in the laboratory; it will reach a stage where it will simply die.”

Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, sees it differently. “The entity that would die is already, and not potentially, a whole living member of the species homo sapiens, which is directing its own integral organic functioning and developing by internal self-direction towards the next stage of maturity. What will cause its death is the fact that it is being deprived of a suitable environment,” he said.

To further complicate things, approximately 50 percent of fertilized eggs abort spontaneously and never become children. Were these spontaneously aborted eggs microscopic persons? If so, should we then conclude that women who experience late menstrual periods ought to baptize what could be an embryo in its earliest stages?

In some ways, this debate is like the now famous or infamous “It all depends on what your definition of is is.”

“I think the way to resolve the question is on the basis of the scientific evidence as to when the life of a human individual begins,” said Dr. George. “For that we turn not to the Quran or the Bible or Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle, but to the modern works of embryology and human developmental biology.”

C. Ward Kischer, an emeritus professor of human embryology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, points out that the Nomenclature Committee of the American Association of Anatomists has rejected the term “pre-embryo” for inclusion in Terminologia Embryologica, the official lexicon of scientific terminology.

“At any point along the continuum of life begun by fertilization … there exists a whole, integrated, human life. A parsing or adulteration of the terminology will not change that truth,” Dr. Kischer said.

Such reasoned, conflicting opinions result in difficult questions.

Is it ethically justifiable to create, in Dr. Pettett’s words, “nascent human life”? And then to extract undifferentiated cells before nature begins its work to differentiate those cells and form a unique fully formed human being? Is such deliberate ending of human-life development unconscionable? Does harvesting stem cells from the blastocyst to maintain or improve the quality of life of existing persons create a further culture of life?

There are no easy answers. But for me, learning that a fertilized egg’s development into a person happens only after implantation has been significant. It’s made me less willing than ever to consider invading a uterus to terminate the life of a fetus and more willing to consider research involving pre-implanted human stem cells in a laboratory.

Patricia Schudy is a former syndicated youth columnist who is writing a book about the role of the oldest daughter in American culture.

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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