In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and Genetic Research

John B. Shea
June 9, 2001
Reproduced with Permission

The exercise of uninhibited choice in the satisfaction of desire is a defining characteristic of western society today. This has led to widespread sexual promiscuity, and an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease, with ironically, a loss of fertility in women. As a consequence there is an increasing demand for assisted human reproduction to be achieved by in-vitro fertilization. At the same time the public is beginning to require more control over every aspect of life. Contraception and abortion are already widespread; euthanasia is increasingly in demand; and recently the elimination of all hereditary disease has become a popular topic of discussion. It is not surprising therefore, that the governments of the industrialized countries, courting the votes of their citizens, have responded with legislation in these areas.

To be able to enter the public debate about these topics it has become necessary to understand them, both from the scientific and ethical perspective so that we may more effectively act in defense of the sanctity of human life. Specifically, we must know the proper definition of the terms used.

These subjects are complex, and the technical terms used, if not clearly understood, make discussion difficult. The problem is aggravated by the fact that certain terms are used inaccurately by many who should know better, e.g. some physicians, bioethicists, lawyers, politicians and journalists. The cause is partly ignorance, partly confusion, and partly deliberate misinformation. I will attempt to clarify the terminology that we must use, but will keep necessary definition of terms as brief as possible.

Every human being is to be accepted as a gift and blessing of God. Every child should be conceived as the fruit of marriage. In in-vitro fertilization, procreation is not desired as the fruit of the conjugal act, but is regarded and treated as a fabricated product. This is contrary to the unity of marriage, the dignity of the spouses, the vocation of the parents, and the child's right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage.

At the moment that a human sperm fertilizes a human ovum a new genetically unique individual human being is conceived. This single-celled human being is called a zygote. Thus begins the embryonic period and a normal pregnancy in the fallopian tube of a woman. This fact has been established scientifically since 1885 by William Hiss, the founder of human embryology.

Human in vitro fertilization (IVF) is achieved by mixing human sperm with several human eggs. The eggs are acquired by giving a woman drugs which stimulate hyper-ovulation where there is simultaneous development of several ova in her ovaries. These are aspirated through a needle under the guidance of ultrasound. Several unicellular human beings (zygotes) are conceived when the ova are penetrated by sperm. Only one sperm can penetrate an ovum. The zygotes are cultured, examined and graded. Usually two, those regarded as "best", are then inserted into the uterus through a catheter, again with ultrasound assistance. Embryos not implanted in the uterus are either discarded or are frozen and stored as surplus or spare embryos. If the first pregnancy is lost, these embryos may be implanted for a second try. Genetic researchers use these frozen embryos as the major source of living tissue for their work today.

The zygote is capable of replicating itself. By three days there are 16 cells in the embryo, and by four days, sixty. After four days the embryo enters the uterine cavity. Implantation of the embryo in the wall of the uterine cavity starts at seven days and is completed seven days later. The cells of the early embryo are called blastomeres. A blastomere removed from an embryo at any time up to the eight cell stage (and occasionally up to the sixteen cell stage) is 'totipotent'. This means that it is capable of producing any kind of tissue. It should be noted that this cell is also capable of changing back into a zygote, that is, becoming another individual human being. This happens normally when identical twinning occurs. A blastomere removed after the 16 cell stage is 'pluripotent', capable of developing into many tissue types, but not capable of reverting to a zygote.

Stem cells are master cells which are capable, with chemical prompting, of being replicated indefinitely, and also of developing into various other types of cell. The cells of the early embryo, blastomeres, when removed from the embryo, act as stem cells.

Sources of Embryonic Stem Cells

  1. the embryo: At present the main source of stem cells used for research is the supply of frozen 'left-over' embryos found in IVF clinics. There are approximately 100,000 of these available in the U.S.A. at any one time.
  2. the fetus: The cells removed from the fetus (during the period from nine weeks until birth) are usually not somatic but embryonic cells. They are primitive sex cells, (germ-line cells which contain 46 chromosomes) which can be fertilized and cloned and are a source of cells for IVF and clone- produced embryos to be used for research.
  3. after birth: Reproductive organs: testis and ovary. These cells are removed from children or adults, and are germ-line, not somatic cells.

Sources of Somatic Stem Cells

In every body tissue, there are undifferentiated precursor cells, stem cells, from which originate the cells which carry out the special functions of an organ or a tissue. These are called 'somatic' stem cells. They are typically retrieved from bone marrow, cord blood, blood, skin, fat, neural tissue and the placenta.

Tissues Produced From Stem Cells

Bone, cartilage, neural tissue, blood vessels, heart cells, fat, and muscle.

Diseases Treated by Marrow (Somatic Stem Cells)

Malignant disease: Various leukemias, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, neuroblastoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myelo-dysplastic syndrome.

Non- malignant disease: Aplastic anemia, thalassemia, Fanconi's anemia, sickle cell anemia, etc.

Possible Future Applications

Cures for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes mellitus, heart failure and tissue repair. Usefulness in vaccine development, testing of pharmaceuticals and basic research.

Clones and Cloning

There are two types of clones and cloning. One involves embryos and germ-line cells and the other involves somatic cells.

The noun 'clone':
1) a cell, or a group of genetically identical cells, replicated by mitotic cell division
2) an organism (embryo), or a group of genetically identical organisms (embryos) descended from a single cell by an a-sexual process (cellular nuclear transfer, that is by transferring a nucleus from a somatic cell into an enucleated ovum).

The verb 'to clone': This verb has several different meanings,

1) to replicate cells from a single stem cell and 2) to produce an organism (embryo) by cellular nuclear transfer. 3) to produce an embryo by blastomere separation, where a single cell reverts to the zygote stage and then develops as an embryo; by blastocyst splitting, in which an embryo is split into two parts and "identical copies" of human embryos are produced. 4) to duplicate or copy human DNA by means of DNA recombinant human germ-line gene transfer to human gametes (sperm or ovum), or to human embryos in-vitro, which genetic changes are then "copied" by normal sexual reproduction through subsequent generations. This is known as "human germ-line engineering". 5) the insertion of extra-chromosomal and extra-nuclear DNA (found in several organelles, such as mitochondria) into the cytoplasm of an ovum which is subsequently fertilized. 6) the injecting of a single cell from an early embryo of a genetically different host into an other early embryo. This is to clone a chimera. 7) parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction in which the ovum develops into a new individual without fertilization. Discovered in the eighteenth century, it has been observed to occur naturally in insects. It has been achieved artificially in most major groups of animals, by stimulation of unfertilized eggs by various mechanical and chemical means. No successful experiments in human parthenogenesis have yet been reported.

Widely Propogated Scientific Falsehoods

1) A distinction is often made between 'reproductive' and 'non-reproductive' cloning. The former is said to occur when an embryo is created for the sole purpose of reproduction but is ultimately used for research purposes, because it was 'left over' in an IVF clinic. The latter term is used to indicate the creation of an embryo for the sole purpose of research. This is a false distinction because in both cases an embryo is created and in both cases that embryo is used as a source of blastomeres to be used as stem cells, and in both cases this results in the death of the embryo. How can one honestly claim that an embryo that one has produced in an IVF clinic is intended solely for implantation, while knowing at the same time that many will be used for research purposes?

2) The human embryo is said not to be a human being until after fourteen days. This statement is simply false. To this day, human embryology text books world wide state that conception of a human being begins at fertilization and that human development continues from that time forward. In the recent discussion paper on stem cell research published by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, it was recommended that research on the human embryo "be permitted up to 14 days after formation of the zygote" as it has "special moral status because of its potential to develop into a human being" (emphasis added). This notion that before 14 days following conception, the embryo is not yet in existence, but is preceded as it were, by an entity often called the 'pre-embryo', goes back to at least 1979 in the bioethics writings of the Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick in his work on the Ethics Advisory Board for the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It is also to be found in an article written in 1979 in the Scientific American magazine, by the frog development biologist, Dr. Clifford Grobstein, and also most notably in his classic book "Science and the Unborn: Choosing Human Futures" (1988). The term 'pre-embryo' was also used as the rationale for permitting human embryo research in the British Warnock Committee Report (1984). It is nonetheless a myth.

Genomic Research and the Future

A study in the March 2001 issue of the journal Human Reproduction stated that two "genetically engineered" babies are already more than a year old, and that "nearly 30 such children have been born world wide. This germ-line engineering has ushered in the era of "designer babies". This is the realization of the ultimate ambition of the father of eugenics, Francis Galton (1822-1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton's ambition was totally consistent with his cousin's notion of 'survival of the fittest'.

Over the past 30 years it has been the practice of physicians to weed out the 'unfit', using diagnostic ultrasound and biochemical methods of diagnosis of disease in the unborn. Nowadays, some people propose that we should not only eliminate disease, but also "enhance" the species by making choices of such things as intelligence, physique and talent. Some even speak of the creation of an elite class, with the preservation of "ordinary" people to do the "ordinary" work. It is no wonder that Jeremy Rifkin has called these new reproductive choices "... the Ultimate Shopping Experience"!

In the drafting of legislation concerning stem cell research, it is of paramount importance to consider the following matters:

Moral principles are properly derived from human reason's understanding of Divine law and from revelation of the Divine law itself. It is important to realize this because the Canadian Institutes of Health Research assumed recently, regarding pending legislation governing human reproduction, that a simple "consensus" of opinion is sufficient grounding on which to base one's moral principles.

An innocent human being exists from the moment of conception, and as such, has the inherent inviolable moral right to be treated with the utmost care, and not to be killed for any reason whatever.

A good end never justifies the use of an evil means toward that end.

All forms of human embryonic cloning fail to respect the sacredness of human life because they either kill, or actually or potentially, harm the human embryo. A mother and father who give consent for their living child to be used as biological research material, treat that child, not as a human being with the basic right to be treated with respect and care and not to be killed, but as chattel, which can be disposed of at will.

Apart from cloning of embryonic and germ-cell lines, there are many other means of replicating cells and producing tissues useful in the treatment of disease. These other avenues of research, such as the use of human somatic stem cells and blood cells, do not require the intentional killing of human beings.

It is improbable that legally valid informed consent could in fact be obtained from mothers and fathers who are "donating" their living children (so-called 'surplus embryos') to be used as mere biological materials, because of the general lack of the necessary accurate scientific facts of human embryology and human genetics being made available to them.

In light of the above considerations, I submit therefore, that it is only just and prudent to suggest that all in-vitro fertilization, all human embryonic cloning, and all cell research based on human embryonic cloning be prohibited by law.