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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

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Chris Burgwald

ANT is problematic, but technically not for the specific reason the author alludes to... Hurlbut would probably respond by noting that the genetic engineering is done before there is any embryo... it is done prior to the fusion of the nucleus in the denucleated ovum.

The problem is that the entity created by ANT would seem to remain a human embryo, i.e. a human being. Simply turning off a gene seems insufficient to render the entity non-human. Therefore, when the ESC are harvested, they would be harvested from an actual human embryo, and not a biological artifact, and Hurlbut hopes.

With Jeff, I am happy to see someone like Professor Hurlbut trying to find a way to further ESCR without killing anyone. He is definitely on our side... that's the whole reason he's doing what he is: he wants to find a way to do ESCR without killing anyone. So kudos for that. I just don't think this proposal succeeds.

Jack Smith

Adrian Walker has a very lengthy critique of ANT at Communio.
http://communio-icr.com/articles/PDF/walker31-4.pdf
It's a long pdf, but basically he argues, that by definition, if one turned off the requisite number or quality of genes to render the result - not human - then the result would also be not human, therefore not useful. That's oversimplified and he has many other objections, but it's worth reading as there is a good deal of confused Catholic support for the thing.

Chris Burgwald

Walker's article is indeed excellent... it's the basis for my comment as well.

St. Peter's Helpers

On the one hand, the efforts of Dr. Hurlbut is commendable and should be noteworthy of any scientific discovery. On the other hand, the fact that this is still considered genetic engineering veiled behind a technicality of definitions would potentially amass confusion among those who aren't rocket scientists and we may run the risk of erasing the thin line between a human entity and a non-human entity.

I wonder how this will be impacted by the the Pope's call to boycott the upcoming referendum on Italy's assisted fertility law.

Jeff Grace

Chris, thanks for the clarification. I'm with you and Jack... more power to him if he can come up with a way to do the research without killing anyone... and he is, indeed, on our side! Thanks for the link to the PDF too...

Jeff Grace

Does anyone know if Dr. Hurlbut has replied to Walker's argument and if so, is it available online?

Chris Burgwald

I haven't seen anything, but Dr. Hurlbut could very well be too busy of late to have seen it yet.

Jeff Grace

Well, I have at least one problem with Walker's argument.  Walker is correct in arguing that experimentation will not determine the ontological status of the entity produced with ANT. It is, indeed, a philosophical issue.  I think if we look closer at the philosophical position he is arguing for, however, we will soon see that it's faulty for the following reason:

We start by looking at the argument he advances for the rejection of the definition of a human organism held by the advocates of ANT.  He rejects the notion that we have to take into account the developmental capacity of the entity produced by ANT.  It is only be rejecting this characteristic of a human organism that he is able to maintain that the entity produced by ANT is a human organism.  At one point he characterizes this definition as a non sequitur.  I think this is incorrect.  On page 659 we find,

The problem with this argument is that it is guilty of a non sequitur. Let us grant for the time being the criterion for organismic status it rests on: an entity has to be able to maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts in order to count as an organism.14 Now, by this standard, it would follow that, once entity X fails to grow a trophectoderm, and so ceases to be able to maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts, it is no longer an organism. But from the fact that X can no longer maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts, it does not follow that it was not able to do so up until that point—and so to count, at least temporarily, as an organism by the very criterion of organismic status that ANT itself invokes.

The conclusion that the entity produced by ANT is a sub-organism is based upon the definition of an organism as something able to "maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts".  What Walker fails to realize is that an ANT produced entity is a sub-organism, even when it is still at a stage of organization, because the lack of the ability to maintain that organization is present.  It is present in the deficiency of the needed genetic structure to maintain that organization, even during the period preceeding the breakdown of this structure, so the conclusion that it is therefore a sub-organism is logically valid.

Mark Brumley

It is not clear why the ability to maintain organization only "temporarily" means that the entity in question is not an organism temporarily. It may be a short-lived organism, but why does the short-lived nature of its organization per se mean it is not an organism? You say that the lack of ability to maintain organization is present, but for how long does an entity need to be able to "maintain" organization in order for it to be an organism? Why cannot some organisms due to genetic limitations have extremely short lifespans, as others have not-as-short-but-still-short lifespans and still others long lifespans? It seems that an arbitrary factor is being introduced to the discussion.

Jeff Grace

Well, it's not just a question of the temporariness of organization... it's the source or reason that the organizational structure is temporary. The nature of the entity simply lacks the necessary basis to maintain the organization... it's not within it's nature to sustain it's structure. The lack is there, even while it is organized temporarily. This lack doesn't come into being at a later date... it's there from the very beginning. Therefore, it's simply not within it's nature to sustain it's organizational structure and this ability is a rudimentary element in the definition of an organism.

Mark Brumley

I asked why a lack of an ability to maintain organization for a longer time than "temporarily" necessarily means the entity in question is not an organism. All organisms are, in a sense, "temporary" as a result of a lack of the necessary basis for maintaining themselves longer than they can. That does not mean they aren't organisms.

I don't know whether the entities under consideration in Walker's piece possess the organization of organisms. However, assuming that an entity can at some point and for some period of time "maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts", then if that is used as the defining criterion for an organism, your point seems incorrect since no entity possesses within itself the ability to maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts indefinitely. All organisms can do so only for a time, more or less long or short.

Jeff Grace

The entity in question, the product of ANT, will never produce the essential elements of an organism, such as organs, body pattern, etc. etc. This is not the same thing as an organism losing it's structure over time... aka death. All organisms eventually break down... but they did have the abilty to sustain their organizational structure before they died.

As any good Thomist will affirm, action follows being. If a thing doesn't have the necessary structure to act as an organism, it ain't an organism.

BP

In sum it's a human being that's had its life shortened and genes willfuly manipulated by other human beings until we make it into a blastocyst we're comfortable with offing. No thanks, I'll pass.

Making a self-destructing organism necessitates that you make an organism. By stating that it "fails to grow a trophectoderm", he means that it falls apart because we've genetically skinned it. A trophectoderm is: The extra-embryonic part of the ectoderm of mammalian embryos at the blastocyst stage before the mesoderm becomes associated with the ectoderm. That means before it's insides are connected to its outsides.

Jeff Grace

BP said:
In sum it's a human being that's had its life shortened and genes willfuly manipulated by other human beings until we make it into a blastocyst we're comfortable with offing. No thanks, I'll pass.

Well, unless you want to call an unfertilized egg a human being, that's not true.

All Dr. Hurlbut is trying to do is find a way to do stem cell harvesting without killing anyone. To do that, he's proposing that we produce an aritfact that isn't an organism, which is similar to growing tissue in a petri dish. He may or may not be onto something morally viable, but we at least should give it a fair examination before we reject it. That's all I'm hoping for.

Mark Brumley

Jeff:

I understood Walker to hold that at some point the entity in question meets the definitive description of an organism affirmed by Hurlbut et al., i.e., it possesses, albeit temporarily, the ability to maintain the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts. If that is true, then it is an organism, even if it rapidly ceases being one--invocations of "Thomism" and "Thomistic propositions" supposedly to the contrary notwithstanding. Walker's argument is valid: if the entity meets the criterion of an organism, then it is an organism, even if it loses coherence quickly and then ceases to be an organism. Nothing you have said, Jeff, shows his argument to be invalid. You can argue that the entity in question doesn't really meet the criterion for an organism outlined in the article. Or you can argue that even if it does meet that criterion it is not an organism because the criterion is inadequate. But IF the entity in question meets the criterion for an organism, THEN it is an organism, notwithstanding its inability to maintain for long "the coordinated all-at-onceness of its essential parts". That's the logical point Walker insists upon.

Now regarding your statement: "All Dr. Hurlbut is trying to do is find a way to do stem cell harvesting without killing anyone. To do that, he's proposing that we produce an aritfact that isn't an organism, which is similar to growing tissue in a petri dish".

Agreed that this is what Hurlburt is *trying* to do, but the issues is whether or not what he proposes actually achieves what he is trying to achieve and what he claims to do. Walker doesn't take issue with the statement that this is what Hurlbut is trying to do. He challenges the claim that what he proposes actually achieves what he intends.

Jeff Grace

Mark,

I'm probably not doing a good job at explaining it because I'm not a biologist, but let me try again...

Hurlbut is saying that it does not meet the criteria for an organism, contrary to Walker's argument. The reason it is not an organism is because it lacks an essential element: telos. It may appear to be an organism for a very short period of time, but it doesn't have the essential elements an organism has that allows it to develop organs, for one thing. If these elements are absent then this means that it isn't an organism. The fact that it can appear to develop for a short period of time doesn't mean that it's an organism for a short period of time, because the definition of an organism includes what it can become. This is knowable by biologists because they can see what is present at the molecular level and therefore make a prediction, with certainty, what can and will happen.

The example of a teratoma was used in the Wired article. This is an example of a naturally occuring entity that appears to be an organism for a short period of time but clearly isn't an organism... and it clearly doesn't have the moral status of a human embryo.

I think a lot of this is clearer if you understand the biology of it all (I don't, but I do see the need for the presence of a telos proper to a human being). I'm reading some background info and I hope to be able to improve my understanding of it all... because it is a critical issue and we do want to make sure we are doing the right thing.

BP

Mr. Grace,

I didn't mean to just bash the idea thoughtlessly, and am sorry if it came off that way. I went into the article hopeful, but left severely disappointed that no one turned a table over at the presentation.

I think it's important to note that Hurlbut is not only dealing with unfertilized eggs. Specifically: "Hurlbut advocates genetically altering cloned embryos so, like a teratoma, they wouldn't have the DNA necessary to become viable humans." (emph added)

That is, he's altering embryos, not mere ova. He's not even using that 'Frankenstein-like' teratoma, but rather genetically mutating human embryos that achieve at least a few days' existence so that they "die when a critical embryonic component - say, a placenta - failed to emerge". That's a genetic malady, not a non-organism. The teratoma is, in fact, a red herring. We're not dealing with a cancer, we're dealing with a human that's had at least long enough a life to produce stem cells.

Jeff Grace

BP,

I'm not sure, but if I understand the science of nuclear transfer correctly, that statement from the Wired article (Hurlbut advocates genetically altering cloned embryos so, like a teratoma, they wouldn't have the DNA necessary to become viable humans) is innacurate. Hurlbut is a strong pro-life advocate so I don't think he's about to alter an embryo, cloned or not, since he's convinced that life begins at conception. The procedure of nuclear transfer works with unfertilized eggs... not embryos.

Update: I found a link here that explains nuclear transfer and I'm now convinced the Wired article is definitely wrong in saying that Hulburt advocates the alteration of cloned human embryos. That's a BIG mistake on Wired's part!

Mike

I don't know why people spend so much time worrying about the ethics or morality of this topic. Its obvious to see the direction we are headed in. Stem cell research and ultimately therapy are going to happen, why waste your time fighting it when you could devote that time to something productive?

BP

Mr. Grace,

Aha. That does put a different spin on things. Mulling...

Mike,

Given a fallen universe, any number of evil things will happen anyway. (I won't bore/boor you with a list.) I don't guess you'd agree that it would be better to concentrate on something else more productive.

Chris Burgwald

Jeff, what if it were possible to genetically manipulate and produce an entity that appears to be homo sapien but will (due to the manipulation) die eighteen months after it begins to exist; would that entity not be a human being because it has been genetically preordained to fail to develop beyond a certain point?

Chris Burgwald

Another question, Jeff...

Many of those who have sought to make the case for the moral & ontological status of the embryo have used the argument of latent capacity: an embryo is (for example) a person because it has the latent capacity to (for example) reason & freely will, even though it cannot immediately exercise that capacity. They further argue that that capacity remains present even in those homo sapiens who are prevented by genetic defect from ever actually reasoning & freely willing as adults.

In light of your argument in support for Dr. Hurlbut's position, I'm wondering what you think of this argument, i.e. whether or not you think this argument for the personhood of the embryo is valid.

Jeff Grace

Chris,

I think in both instances that you gave, we have a human being. I think a human embryo is a human being, a person, and I think the entity (I'm not sure what you mean by "seems to be a homo sapien"... we'd know) is a person that has been engineered to die and that's murder. I also believe that the people you describe, people who are prevented by genetic defects from actual reasoning and willing, are human beings—persons—as well.

That's nothing like what Hurlbut is proposing, though. He's proposing to produce an artificial teratoma, not an embryo. A teratoma isn't even an organism, let alone an embryo.


Jeff Grace

Chris, let me also add that Dr. Hurlbut is proposing that we expriment with unfertilized eggs from animals in order to see if his proposal (ANT) would work... if it really would produce an artificial teratoma.  There's an excellent Q&A between Kathryn Jean Lopez (of National Review) and Wesley J. Smith located here, at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, that helps frame what Dr. Hurlbut is proposing.

Chris Burgwald

Jeff, do you read the Nation Catholic Bioethics Quarterly? Walker referenced a symposium in the latest issue, and I found it quite interesting. One of the authors discussed the issue of these artifacts as teratoma. Actually, I recall that Walker does so as well. What are your thoughts on that aspect of his analysis?

Jeff Grace

Chris,

I don't read it... and I don't care much for Walker's analysis... sorry!

Jeff Grace

Chris, I probably would read it if I could afford a subscription... ;>

Chris Burgwald

Jeff, can you elaborate on your thoughts on Walker's analysis of the teratoma analogy? He points out the significant differences between the product of ANT and various teratomas, with some reference to the work of Fr. Tad Pacholczyk of the NCBC.

Jeff Grace

Chris,

I'm actually writing a paper on this so am reluctant to say more here. You got a good preview of the general problem I have with Walker's position when I pointed out why I believe he is mistaken in his charge that Hurlbut's position involves a logical fallacy, a non sequitur.

Chris Burgwald

Okay... let us know when the paper is finished and/or published!

In the meantime, the new issue of NCBQ is out... you should try to get a hold of this periodical via a library; there are articles in this and the last issue which are definitely relevant.

Chris Burgwald

Jeff, have you heard about ANT-OAR (OAR = oocyte assisted reprogramming)? It's a proposal a number of folks (incluiding Dr. Hurlbut) developed which seems to avoid the moral issues raised by ANT. Fr Tad Pacholcyzk -- who was somewhat critical of ANT -- is an endorser of ANT-OAR, and there's an article in the new WSJ on it today. By Robbie George & Marcus Grompe.

FYI!

Jeff Grace

Hi Chris,

I have heard something to that effect and it sounds good!  I would like to point out, however, that Dr. Hurlbut's proposal (ANT) does have support from prominent Catholic ethicists.  In the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Benedict Ashley, OP and Nicanor Austriaco, OP, both Dominican priests, have dealt with the issues regarding how human life is defined.  They are referenced in a work I'm reading by Dr. Hurlbut:

Ashley, B. 2001. Cloning, Aquinas, and the embryonic person. Natl Catholic Bioethics Q 1:
189–202.

Austriaco, N. P. 2002. On static eggs and dynamic embryos: A systems perspective. Natl
Catholic Bioethics Q 2:659–83.

Fr. Austriaco's article can be found online through the following link, which will open a PDF:

On Static Eggs and Dynamic Embryos

Jeff Grace

Addendum! 

I found Fr. Ashley's article here:

Cloning, Aquinas, and the Embryonic Person

Please note that both of these articles serve to support the definition of human life utilized by Dr. Hurlbut... which is being challenged in Walker's article.

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