• Embryos & Stem Cells •
October 17, 2005
Two possible breakthroughs in human stem cell research were announced Sunday in Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific journals. In “‘Ethical’ Routes to Stem Cells highlight Political Divide,” Erika Check and Carina Dennis report that scientists have developed two techniques for deriving pluripotent human stem cells that do not require the destruction of a human embryo.
October 2, 2005
In what must look like an exercise in self-parody, NBC plans to broadcast a new prime-time soap opera entitled “Inconceivable,” which is fictionally located within a fertility clinic. Honest. Here’s the scoop from NBC’s Web site: This delightful ensemble drama concerns one of the most complicated questions: to conceive or not to conceive. The doctors of the Family Options Fertility Clinic are on a noble quest to help desperate couples give birth. Except these doctors are often distracted by their personal quests involving sex, deception and secrets. Navigating through ultrasounds and super-egos, missing frozen embryos and impending malpractice suits, it’s positively clear that life inside this clinic is anything but sterile. Ah, the ‘noble quest’ that gets complicated by personal quests. Interested?
Along comes Liza Mundy of Slate to provide the rest of the story. It seems that the series was created by two homosexual men who, as Mundy explains, “themselves have families with the help of surrogates.”
She also explains that Beverly Hills, the chosen location for the fictional clinic, was a good choice. Here’s why:
“Inconceivable” is set in a fictional Beverly Hills fertility clinic, Family Options. It was a good geographical choice, given that if the show were set anywhere else, the staff might have to–for purposes of verisimilitude–occasionally decide not to go ahead with something. There is a real difference between the culture of East Coast fertility medicine, which is more hidebound in clinging, at least nominally, to the notion of “medical necessity,” and the West Coast, especially Los Angeles, where a more consumer-minded approach to patient care prevails. In the Washington, D.C., area, where I live, many clinics still will not work with gay males, justifying this on the grounds that technically IVF is a medical treatment for infertile people. Many of these same clinics, however, will provide sperm donation services for lesbians, partnered or single, and other unmarried women whose infertility amounts to “no male partner.” In Los Angeles–by way of contrast–there are doctors who specialize in gay couples. In L.A., land of 48-year-old actresses-turned-first-time-mothers, the trade in donor eggs is so active and so normalized that the college-age daughter of a friend of mine, sitting at a cafe in Santa Monica, was approached by an unknown couple who asked if she would be their donor. Surrogacy laws are friendly in California. Fertility treatment is cheaper in California. In Los Angeles–I think this is fair to say–doctors may debate ethics, but chances are the end of the debate will be: Yes. Which means that in the case of Family Options, almost every patient can be an unfolding storyline.
Stay tuned, as they say. Is a culture known by its soap operas? We must surely admit that much is revealed by knowing what fascinates a culture and holds its attention. This new series also tells us something about the pace of social and moral change in contemporary America. Inconceivable would have been truly inconceivable just a few years ago.
September 29, 2005
Women are increasingly seeking inappropriate IVF treatment because they do not have the time or inclination for a sex life and want to “diarise” their busy lives.
Wealthy career women in their 30s and early 40s, some of whom have given up regular sex altogether, are turning to “medicalised conception” – despite being fertile and long before they have exhausted the possibility of a natural conception.
They are prepared to pay thousands of pounds for private IVF treatments – even though they have unpleasant and potentially harmful side effects – because they believe it offers them the best chance of “instant” pregnancy.
Further: Michael Dooley, a gynaecologist, obstetrician and fertility expert, said that in the past five years he has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of patients seeking “inappropriate or premature” IVF treatment.
“Many of these couples are simply not having sex or not having enough sex,” he said. “Conception has become medicalised. It’s too clinical. There has been a trend away from having sex and loving relationships towards medicalised conception.”
Mr Dooley practises at Westover House clinic and the Lister Hospital, both in south-west London, and a clinic in Poundbury, Dorset. He said: “I have people who come to me for IVF who haven’t got time for sex. Those people don’t care about looking for a lifestyle or maximising their natural potential.”
So, the contraceptive revolution allowed sex without conception. Then the bio-tech revolution allowed conception without sex. Lost in all this is any biblical (or even organic) understanding of marriage and the meaning sex within the marital relationship. Procreation is severed from the one-flesh relationship and pregnancy is scheduled like business appointment.
I cannot think of a more graphic example of what happens when human beings begin to think of themselves as autonomous units, whose desires and needs can be disconnected from transcendent purpose and organic function. Sex, marriage, and procreation can be fully disconnected and then can be independently directed. George Orwell must be laughing from the grave.
On the marriage front, The Telegraph also reports: Marriage is in terminal decline, Government figures showed yesterday. Within 25 years nearly half of all men in their mid-forties and more than a third of women will not have walked up the aisle.
In the same period, the number of people cohabiting will have more than doubled to nearly four million.
The figures published in a Population Trends report by Whitehall actuaries prompted fresh warnings from family campaigners that Government policies had marginalised marriage.
September 29, 2005
Questions of human reproduction inevitably define what it means to be human, and the moral issues which arise in connection with sex and reproduction are among the most divisive controversies of our time. The development of “test tube baby” technologies presents us with moral issues which demand answers, and require our most careful thought and reflection.
September 17, 2005
The Guardian [London} reports: Fertility ships where British couples will be able to receive treatment forbidden in the UK could soon be anchored off the coast in international waters. Entrepreneurs are planning to hire ships to offer treatments that include inseminations by sperm from anonymous donors or more controversial techniques such as gender selection.
More: Ships off the coast could offer insemination with sperm from anonymous donors, which some couples prefer. Floating fertility clinics would also get round other aspects of the law which childless couples might find burdensome, such as the rule in Denmark that frozen embryos must be destroyed after two years, or the prohibition in many countries on sex selection. “Taking advantage of the international shipping legislation would not be illegal,” said Mr Schou, at the sperm bank in the Danish university town of Aarhus where anonymous student donors are plentiful. “The idea is to have ships staffed with professional people from the local country. UK doctors would be employed and take care of UK patients. There is a market for hundreds of ships in Europe and the most obvious markets will be around the UK and Italy. It is just a question of how quickly they can organise. The finance is there because it is such a huge market.”
A few years ago, activists sponsored an abortion ship. Now, we face the prospect of an artificial insemination ship — taking advantage of the seas in order to skirt the law.
September 9, 2005
Scientists in the United Kingdom have been pressing the ethical boundaries in biomedical research for some time now, but an announcement made today takes us further toward the posthuman future many of us have been dreading.
Even as Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has been calling for public reaction to recent proposals, on Thursday the agency granted a license to researchers at Newcastle University, and will allow the creation of human embryos with genetic material taken from two mothers.
Here’s how The Guardian [London] described the procedure: The researchers will first fuse sperm with an egg taken from a woman at risk of passing on a mitochondrial disease. Before the sperm and egg form an embryo, they will be transplanted into a healthy egg taken from another woman, leaving the defective mitochondria behind. The embryo can then develop as normal.
The scientists intend to use the cloned embryos in research directed toward the treatment of mitochondrial diseases.
Current British law would prevent the implantation of the embryos. Nevertheless, opponents of the HFEA’s decision pointed to the fact that current laws would also prohibit any embryonic research that would change the genetic structure of the embryo.
The agency’s official news release defended the decision, and offered what appears to be an very ambiguous defense: Expert views were also given on the meaning of the phrase ‘genetic structure’ in relation to the proposed research and the committee heard that this phrase has no precise scientific meaning. No precise scientific meaning? Then how does the HFEA know how to operate within the law?
As The Times [London] reported: Some observers said the HFEA had overstepped its remit when the Government has begun a review of embryology legislation. A legal challenge is likely because the appeal turned on reinterpreting a ban on altering the genetic structure of a cell.
Once this procedure is performed, there is no reason that the research must stop at an attempt to create human embryos free of certain mitochondrial diseases. The same technology could be used to create designer babies.
DESIGNER LINKS: The Independent, The Telegraph [news], The Telegraph [analysis],The Scotsman, Channel 4 News [UK], BBC News, Medical News Today,
September 1, 2005
Human knowledge is expanding across almost all fields of knowledge, but the revolution in genetic science represents one of the most incredible expansions of knowledge in human history. The last three decades have witnessed some of the most astounding discoveries in the history of science, as the human genome has been fully identified and as scientists unlock the mysteries of individual genes and their function. At the same time, a sense of foreboding accompanies this expansion of knowledge. Where will all this lead?
August 22, 2005
August 22, 2005
For the first time, scientists now claim to have transformed ordinary human skin cells into cells equal in “totipotentiality” to embryonic stem cells. The report is published in today’s edition of The Washington Post and the full research report is to be published in the journal Science this week.
Here’s how the Post described the breakthrough: Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells — without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.
Later in the article: Until now, the only way to turn a person’s ordinary cell into a “personalized” stem cell such as this was to turn that ordinary cell into an embryo first and later destroy the embryo to retrieve the new stem cells growing inside — a process widely known as “therapeutic cloning.”
That prospect, like others in the promising arena of human embryonic stem cell research, has stirred strong emotions among those who believe that days-old human embryos should not be intentionally destroyed.
The Harvard University research team that produced the study warned that its findings were preliminary. Nevertheless, this offers a real and substantial hope that stem cell research can progress without the destruction of human embryos.
UPDATE: Harvard University is now out with a press release on the research. The release opens: A new type of hybrid cell created at Harvard University could eventually solve the mystery of how embryonic stem cells develop into specialized adult cells, and provide genetically tailored treatments for many human diseases. What’s more, the technique holds out the possibility of doing this without creating or destroying human embryos. The researchers fused adult skin cells with embryonic stem cells in such a way that the genes of the embryonic cells reset the genetic clock of the adult cells, turning them back to their embryonic form.
August 19, 2005
August 18, 2005
The Washington Post and The New York Times are out today with truly frightening reports. Headlined, “Fetal Tissue Heals Burns,” The Washington Post article reports: An experimental therapy that uses skin cells grown from an aborted fetus successfully healed severe burns in eight children, sparing them the need for skin grafts, according to a study published today. Note carefully that the source of the tissue — an aborted fetus — is identified right in the first paragraph of the article.
Here’s more: Cells grown from the foreskin of circumcised newborns and large pieces of skin removed from cadavers are sometimes used to cover burns and promote healing. The Swiss researchers were the first to use cells from a fetus — a 14-week male whose mother gave permission at the time of abortion.
The researchers claim that the use of fetal tissue produced remarkable results. “The results were sort of unexpected. . . . These constructs seem to work as a biological Band-Aid, promoting spontaneous healing of the patient,” said Patrick Hohlfeld of University Hospital of Lausanne, who was one of the researchers.
What makes this article even more fascinating — and worrying — is the fact that moral objections to the use of tissue from aborted fetuses are not even raised until the last paragraph of the Post’s article: One fetus could theoretically provide material for hundreds or thousands of burn victims, although Hohlfeld said he suspected that would not remove some people’s objections to the use of tissue from an aborted fetus. The same is true for the article in the Times: Because fetal cells grow well in the lab, millions of bandages can be created from one small fetal skin sample, Dr. Hohlfeld said, minimizing if not eliminating ethical concerns. “It is true the origin is a terminated fetus, but one biopsy is enough to treat thousands of patients for years,” he said.
Mr. Hohlfeld is surely right, and I am one of those persons whose objections are not removed. Are we ready to turn aborted fetuses into organ and tissue donors? Is this just the next step of logic accepted and championed by the Culture of Death?
August 16, 2005