Human Embryology and Church Teachings

D. Human Embryonic "Stem Cell" Research, Human Cloning, Human Genetic Engineering, Etc.

The use of living human embryos (through 8 weeks post-inception) and fetuses in destructive research is hardly new. However, especially as human embryos became available through in vitro fertilization and other techniques, their exploitation has dramatically increased. As noted by the Pontifical Council for the Family: "This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos." This is the case with experimentation on embryos, increasingly widespread in the field of biomedical research and legally permitted in some countries. Regardless of legality, the Church states that "…the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person." This moral condemnation "also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses - sometimes specifically 'produced' for this purpose by in vitro fertilization" either to be used as biological material or to provide organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of diseases. "The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 1995, par. 63). Thus, intentional violations of the life and dignity of human embryos in such exploitive research is not morally permissible: "Respect for the dignity of the human being excludes all experimental manipulation or exploitation of the human embryo" (Pontifical Council for the Family 1983, art. 4).

The same is true for the use of sexually reproduced human embryos for the production of embryonic stem cells. As explained by the Pontifical Academy for Life on the basis of a biological analysis, the living human embryo is "from the moment of the union of the gametes - a human subject with a well defined identity, which from that point begins its own coordinated, continuous and gradual development, such that at no later stage can it be considered as a simple mass of cells." Thus, the removal of the inner cell mass of the embryo at the blastocyst stage "is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicit," adding that "a good end does not make right an action which in itself is wrong." For the same reasons the academy specifically states that "this prohibition applies equally to the removal of stem cells from cloned [asexually reproduced] human embryos." Further, the tradition of "probabilism" cannot be appealed to because "moral theology has always taught that in the case of 'jus certum tertii' the system of probabilism does not apply." Nor is it morally licit to use embryonic stem cells or their progeny supplied by others, as this would constitute formal or material cooperation in evil. Instead, already clinically proven adult and cord blood stem cells could probably ethically be used (Pontifical Academy for Life 2000a).

Again, the Pontifical Academy for Life also sees that halting the human cloning project is a moral duty that must be translated into cultural, social, and legislative terms. "In a democratic, pluralistic system, the first guarantee of each individual's freedom is established by unconditionally respecting human dignity at every phase of life, regardless of the intellectual or physical abilities one possesses or lacks." In human cloning the necessary condition for any society - "that of treating man always and everywhere as an end, as a value, and never as a mere means or simple object" - begins to collapse. At the level of human rights, the possibility of human cloning represents a violation of the two fundamental principles on which all human rights are based: the principle of equality among human beings and the principle of non-discrimination. "Contrary to what may appear at first sight, the principle of parity and equality among human beings is violated by this possible form of man's domination over man, and the discrimination that comes about through the whole selective-eugenic dimension inherent in the logic of cloning" (Pontifical Academy for Life 1997a).

Several other Church documents similarly address the institutions and laws that foster the misuse of asexually reproduced human embryos. In an appeal to the United Nations to ban human cloning based on human rights, the Vatican Mission noted, "If human rights are to mean anything, at any time, anywhere in the world, then surely no one can have the right to do such a thing. Human rights flow from the recognition that human beings have an intrinsic dignity that is based on the fact that they are human. Human embryos are human, even if they are cloned." If the rest of us want to have the rights that flow from the recognition of this dignity, "then we must act to ban cloning in all its forms" (Vatican Mission to the United Nations 2003b, emphasis added).

The Vatican Mission points out that not only does human cloning violate the inherent dignity and human rights of the cloned embryo; it also "objectifies human sexuality and turns the bodies of women into commodities." Women are also deprived of their innate dignity "by becoming suppliers of eggs and wombs." Furthermore, other persons and technological powers "could easily exercise undisputed dominion over the duration of this person's life or his or her unique identity." As fellow human beings we are "called to further the common good for the present and future generations across the globe. We do this to protect all who share and participate in the human condition." But if some human beings are destined to serve interests that do not take into account these fundamental principles of human nature that are at the center of the UN's concern, "they are reduced to a servile status that denies them the fundamental claim to life and self-determination guaranteed to all." Noting the false distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, supposedly based on the purpose or goal of the research, the Vatican Mission insists that to clone a human being, regardless of the goal, "is to deny this person's basic ontological claim that unites him or her to the rest of the human family." This human being has no hope of a self-determining future "because his or her individuality will be destroyed to further some research purpose or to enhance the narcissism of a person who has already existed." In either case, the document continues, "the cloned human being is reduced to enslavement that contravenes the fundamental nature of human existence - to be free and to live as a unique individual capable of contributing to the development of the self and society" (Vatican Mission to the United Nations February 2003a).

The Church's envoys boldly and directly confront the false distinction made between so-called therapeutic and reproductive human cloning, rejecting both as inherently immoral, reiterating the stand that a human embryo's humanity per se is sufficient. Thus the Holy See rejects the false distinction between reproductive and therapeutic human cloning "as devoid of any ethical and legal ground." It might also be stated that it is devoid of any scientific ground. The Church's envoy continues by pointing out that reproductive cloning of human beings contravenes the law of nature, as does the cloning of the human embryo that is slated for research purposes. For the same reasons, all forms of human cloning are morally illicit: "The early but unavoidable result of both embryo splitting and nuclear transfer cloning is the reproduction of a human being at its embryonic stage of development." Even if there is no destruction of the cloned human embryo and it is allowed to mature to adulthood, "this activity is still an affront to the dignity of the human person." As a form of unnatural asexual reproduction, "it represents a radical manipulation of the constitutive relationship and complementarity that are at the origin of human procreation as a biological act and an exercise of human love" (Vatican Mission to the United Nations 2003c).

The Vatican Mission further points to the United Nation's own precepts, which should prohibit all human cloning, noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reiterates the sanctity of all human life and the need to protect it from harm. "In this regard, Article 3 of the Declaration asserts that everyone has the right to life." The Universal Declaration confirms that "each human being is an entity who is guaranteed a future filled with the hope of self-determination." Therefore, conditions, such as cloning, that degrade any human being with servitude and deny the fundamental rights to life and self-determination are reprehensible (Vatican Mission to the United Nations 2003a).

Such research, the Vatican Mission notes, would also violate international law: "Various international instruments acknowledge that the dignity of the human person is at the center of international law. Regardless of the objective for which it was done, human cloning conflicts with the international legal norms that protect human dignity." International law guarantees the right to life to all, not just some, human beings and adds that involuntary medical and biological experimentation on human beings is morally wrong. Human cloning also "poses great threats to the rule of law" by enabling those responsible for cloning to select and propagate certain characteristics such as gender or race and eliminate others. This, the Vatican Mission states, would be akin to the practice of eugenics leading to the institution of a "super race." Inevitable discrimination against those born through the natural process would follow. Human cloning also denies international rights to due process and equal protection of the law for human subjects who come into being for research purposes (Vatican Mission to the United Nations 2003a).

Similarly, in an address to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Pontifical Academy for Life also rejects the false distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, a distinction supposedly based on the goal or purpose of the research, reminding them that any type of cloning is illicit "which implies the creation or splitting of embryos, no matter what techniques are used or what aims are pursued because it is not licit to do evil even to bring about good." Thus the Academy astutely observes that the prohibition of reproductive cloning only in Article 11 is not sufficient. "Regrettably, this formulation does not exclude human cloning, equally unacceptable, for other purposes, e.g. research or therapy" (Pontifical Academy for Life 1997b). Simply put, "No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 1995, par. 62).

The Church has formally made Herself quite clear on the abuse of both sexually and asexually reproduced human embryos for any purposes. The debate is still out, however, on attempts to "ethically" create human embryonic stem cells for research and patient "therapies" (e.g., various recent cell de-differentiation methods used in research involving OAR, ANT, iPS, etc.). Is such research accomplished without involving the deaths of human embryos or human fetuses whose cells and tissues may be used in the materials and methods, or without involving new human embryos who might be asexually reproduced in the process, or without causing serious, even deadly, immune responses in patients in clinical trials? Are these new scientific studies really either ethical or scientifically successful (Wollert and Drexler 2005, pp. 151-163; Cyrannoski 2008, pp. 406-408; Irving 2008a, pp. 1-9)?

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