Human Embryos and Research - Have Your Say

Nathaniel Centre Staff
Issue 19, August 2006

On 24 July, 2006 Toi te Taiao The Bioethics Council released a booklet designed to encourage discussion about the use of human embryos for research. The publication of this document reflects the responsibility Toi te Taiao has to consider the cultural, ethical and spiritual issues raised by the use of biotechnology in New Zealand and to get people thinking and talking and to encourage them to get involved.

The booklet anticipates the release of draft guidelines on the use of embryos for research by the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) later in the year. All New Zealander's have the opportunity to submit their comments on these draft guidelines.

The desire to carry out research on embryos reflects a hope that stem cells unspecialized cells which have the ability to give rise to particular tissue-specific cells may one day provide the key to a wide range of cures and therapies. Embryos are one way of sourcing stem cells commonly referred to as embryonic stem cells (ESC's). The dilemma is that such stem cells can only be gathered by destroying the embryo.

Other types of stem cells - known as adult stem cells - can be obtained from a variety of other sources such as cord blood and bone marrow. The sourcing of adult stem cells does not require the destruction of embryos. For this reason, research on adult stem cells poses far fewer ethical dilemmas. At the same time, however, adult cells are more limited than ESC's in terms of the range of tissue-specific cells that they are potentially able to develop into.

It is because adult stem cells are more restricted in their ability to differentiate than ESC's that many researchers regard ESC's as holding greater promise. This has led to considerable pressure being put on governments around the world, including New Zealand, to make human embryos available for such research.

There are, broadly speaking, two key sources of embryonic stem cells; embryos specifically created for implantation by fertility clinics and which are now not required for implantation (sometimes called spare embryos) and embryos created expressly for destructive research. Embryos created for destructive research may be produced in one of two ways; through donated sperm and eggs the same process used to create embryos for infertile couples - or by a process of cloning (SCNT) in which the nucleus of an egg is replaced with the nucleus of a body cell (skin cell, hair cell, etc) containing the full complement of chromosomes of a particular person.

While a distinction is made between cloning for research and reproductive cloning (a practice that is illegal in New Zealand and universally banned) the process is essentially the same. The key difference is that in research cloning the embryo is allowed to grow for only seven days after which time it is destroyed so that its stem cells can be removed.

The booklet notes that individual attitudes to embryo research reflect a person's understanding of the moral status of the embryo. Some regard the embryo as merely a collection of cells, deserving of no special respect. Others regard it as meriting some protection but believe that for very good reasons such as the search for therapies embryos may sometimes be used for research. Catholic teaching holds that without exception the living embryo is, from the moment of fertilisation, a human being with an absolute right to life. On that basis all embryos are entitled to the same respect as persons.

Stem cell research holds real promise for the prevention and treatment of serious diseases. However, we have a moral obligation to pursue good outcomes by using only ethical means. It is an old axiom that the end does not justify the means. Sufficient account needs to be taken of the moral harm associated with the destruction of human embryos, including its wider repercussions for the way we look at all human life. Appealing exclusively to the future benefits that may come about as a result of destructive research on human embryos obscures broader ethical issues.

In the case of stem cell research, the use of adult stem cells provide an ethically acceptable alternative and we have a moral obligation to pursue this alternative. There is also other promising research which is seeking ways of obtaining cells with the same properties of embryonic stem cells without the need to create or harm human embryos.

For a fuller discussion of the Catholic understanding of the moral and ethical issues associated with stem cell research refer to The Nathaniel Report:

Issue number five: The Moral Status of the Embryo

Issue number twelve: Stem Cell Research in New Zealand

Submissions may be sent directly to ACART through their website.