On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for Cloning


Working days, nights and weekends, with criminal charges hanging over his head, disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is trying to climb the steep hill to rehabilitation. Assisted by a team of 30 in a private lab south of Seoul, he is working on cloning animal embryos. A colleague told AP that he dreams of working with cloned human embryos again. “There are many good research results that we want to boast about,” she says.However, editors of leading journals are cautious. “Any submission form Dr Hwang would take into consideration the irreparable harm that his previous misconduct has inflicted on the scientific enterprise,” says Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, one of the journals duped by the Korean. And Curt Civin, editor of Stem Cells, who was also a victim of his fraud, says that he would worry about recidivism.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harvard researcher George Daley told an international meeting of stem cell scientists in Australia recently that Hwang’s research was genuinely original. He had been the first to create stem cell lines from a parthenote, an activated, unfertilised egg. ~ AP, Jun 21; Nature Reports Stem Cells blog, Jun 18   



Coming from a different angle, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have told a parliamentary committee that human-animal hybrid embryos conceived in the laboratory should be regarded as human and their mothers should be allowed to give birth to them. The government is currently studying legislation which will allow the creation of chimeric embryos so long as they are destroyed within 14 days. However, the bishops do not see why “interspecies” embryos should be treated any differently than others.In their submission to the committee, they said: “At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and should be treated accordingly. In particular, it should not be a crime to transfer them, or other human embryos, to the body of the woman providing the ovum, in cases where a human ovum has been used to create them. Such a woman is the genetic mother, or partial mother, of the embryo; should she have a change of heart and wish to carry her child to term, she should not be prevented from doing so.”

However, the bishops still oppose the creation of chimeras — and most of the other provisions in the proposed legislation — as a violation of human rights. ~ London Telegraph, Jun 27   


Nature has launched a new website dedicated to news and views about stem cells. “Our goal is enlighten and promote communication in stem cell research by providing content as diverse as the stakeholders in this field — all the scientists, policy makers, ethicists, clinicians, and patients who are driving stem cell research forward,” says Nature Reports Stem Cells.Apart from serving as a way of keeping non-specialists and lay readers up to date, the site also seems committed to promoting embryonic stem cell research. One of its first comment pieces come from a Lutheran theologian who offers a theological justification for chimeras. Ted Peters, of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, finds that reasons offered by Catholics and Evangelicals are insufficient to proscribe the creation of chimeric human embryonic stem cells.

The “yuck factor”, he feels, also fails in the face of the great possible good from this research. He even finds that arguments against the creation of hybrid creatures are “weak”, although for the moment, this would be unwise. “When more is known, such a policy could be revised.” ~Nature Reports Stem Cells   


“Manimals” are around the corner, according to the bioethics writer for the Washington Post and Slate, William Saletan. In an update on scientists’ progress towards creating animals with varying degrees of human characteristics, he points out that “the more you humanise animals, the better they serve their purpose as lab models of humanity. That’s what scary about species mixing. It’s not some crazy Frankenstein project. It’s the future of medicine.”Saletan points out that at Stanford, where human brain stem cells have already been inserted into foetal mice, even more ambitious projects are afoot. Ethicists there have tentatively endorsed the notion of humanised mouse brains. Even endowing mice with “some aspects of human consciousness or some human cognitive abilities” might prove useful. The UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences have refused to permanently restrict the humanisation of animals. ~ Washington Post, Jun 24   

Primate cloning

An American scientist has announced that he has been able to perform therapeutic cloning with a rhesus monkey. If this is confirmed, it would be first time that anyone has successfully cloned a primate. The news, from the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, in Cairns, Australia, excited scientists who believe that this foreshadows the possibility of human cloning. ~ news.com.au, Jun 19


America’s culture wars appear to be invading the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature. The lead editorial in the June 14 issue is a combative rebuttal of an op-ed in the New York Times by US Senator Sam Brownback. In it he contended that evolution provided welcome insights into nature. But, he said, it had to be rejected if it undermined the notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God, as it says in the book of Genesis.

Poppycock, says Nature. “The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is not atheistic theology. It is unassailable fact.” Discoveries in the new sciences of human behaviour also show that the origin of the human mind is to be found by studying biological and cultural evolution.  

Not content to let the matter rest there, Nature commissioned a freelance science journalist, Dan Jones, to survey evidence that many moral judgements stem from visceral reactions of disgust. According to Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, disgust is a sensation that has an adaptive value in the face of natural selection; it enables distinctions between an in-group and an out-group, us and them. Disgust fosters greater cohesion within groups. “Where core disgust is the guardian of the body, moral disgust acts as the guardian of the social body — that’s when disgust shows its ugliest side,” says a psychologist of disgust, Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

And who shows more irrational disgust? Here’s where Nature lobs its culture war grenades into the trenches of the enemy. According to psychologists from Yale and Cornell Universities, interviewed by Jones, it is “conservatives”, notably opponents of abortion, gay rights, cloning and stem-cell research. Questionnnaires apparently show that self- identified liberals are motivated largely by the empathetic and rational virtues of concern for harming others and for fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, while they, too, had these motivations, are also influenced by more primitive-sounding emotions of group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual purity.

Disgust is more or less synonymous with “repugnance” and Jones gleefully deploys this recent research to pull the rug from under America’s best-known “conservative” bioethicist, Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass coined the phrase “the wisdom of repugnance” and used it to question the case for cloning. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” he wrote.

Primitive stuff, it seems. According to Jorge Moll, a Brazilian cognitive neuroscientist, disgust, and presumably repugnance, reside in the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex. What we need to do is cultivate the liberal virtues of tolerance and empathy to counteract “the toxic effects of disgust”. ~ New York Times, May 31; Nature, June 14   


Artificial life is around the corner, says gene pioneer Craig Venter. His project of creating a “minimal bacterial genome” is only weeks or months away from completion. He calls it “one of the bright milestones in history, changing our conceptual view of life”.

And he has applied for a patent, as synthetic life could have a huge number of industrial applications. His company, Synthetic Genomics, recently partnered with energy giant BP to make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen from coal or oil: “potential to provide all the transportation fuel we need in the US,” says Venter.

What Venter has done is to take a very simple bacterium with 470 genes, Mycoplasma genitalium, and knock out each of them to find the minimum needed to sustain life. Apparently there are 381 of these. Theoretically a string of DNA with these genes can be synthesised and placed inside a “ghost cell” consisting of a membrane and some cell machinery. Voila! — Synthia, as the bug has been dubbed.

But artificial life sends shivers up and down the spine of some ethicists and scientists. The ETC Group, a Canadian watchdog organisation spotted Venter’s patent application recently and has asked him to withdraw it as contrary to public morality and safety. There are areas where mankind should not meddle, it says. “We don’t own life, life owns us,” saysMargaret Somerville, a Canadian bioethicist.

But there are more down to earth reasons, as well. Bioterrorists could create pathogens. Or a patent on a synthetic organism could make Venter’s company the “Microbesoft” of synthetic biology, according to ETC. ~ Economist, Jun 16; Business Week, June 25