Lives in Limbo: Embryos on the Edge of Ethics

Even Theologians Differ on What to Do with Them

LONDON, DEC. 8, 2001 ( Artificial fertilization and the popularity of experiments with embryo cells has produced a minefield of ethical problems.

Consider some examples. In Britain a family is expecting a “designer” baby whose bone marrow could be used for the benefit of his brother. Susanna and David Peters went to the United States in order to arrange for a baby whose matching immune system would be of help to their other son, who is recovering from leukemia, the Guardian reported Oct. 15.

There is a 25% chance that the Peters´ son, Marcus, who is 4, will suffer a relapse in the next few years. They wanted to be sure that a compatible bone marrow donor will be available to save his life.

Techniques now allow a mother to undergo in vitro fertilization treatment and have the embryos screened before implantation in the womb to select a baby that will provide a perfect tissue match for donation. British regulations forbid this, so the family went to the United States.

Eleven embryos were screened; only one was healthy and compatible, and it was implanted. But on her return to the United Kingdom, the pregnancy failed to last. So Susanna went back to Chicago. Out of another 11 embryos, five were compatible, but only three developed to the point where they could be implanted, and from one, Peters became pregnant.

Or take the case of Gaye Woolford, a Huntington´s patient whose brain disease is being treated by means of injections of brain cells from an aborted fetus. Starting last year, Woolford became one of the first four British Huntington´s patients to undergo this treatment at Addenbrooke´s hospital in Cambridge, the Guardian reported Sept. 11.

Doctors hope the transplanted cells, which do not carry the mutant gene that causes the disease and which are at an early-enough stage of development to be flexible, will attach themselves to the host brain and thrive there, replacing the damaged tissue.

The screening of embryos produced by in vitro fertilization, which results in the undesired ones being left to die, is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. PDG was recently defended by Robert J. Boyle, an expert in genetics, and Julian Savulescu, professor of medical ethics, in a Nov. 24 article in the British Medical Journal.

They noted how at the end of 1999 a couple in the United States underwent in vitro fertilization and for the first time used PGD to screen their embryos for those whose tissue type matched that of their daughter, who had Fanconi´s anemia. Over four treatment cycles, five suitable embryos were implanted; one survived and, at birth, blood from the umbilical cord was harvested. This blood was used in a successful stem cell transplant for the daughter.

Currently, the article observed, there are no clear professional guidelines specifically related to using PGD for the benefit of an existing person.

The authors maintain that “provided that parents love their child, there is little problem with that child benefiting others.” So a child conceived for stem cell donation is likely to be valued as a person, they argue.

To the objection that PGD results in the unnecessary destruction of embryos that are incompatible tissue donors but likely to be healthy, the article notes that British legislation allows embryos to be destroyed until 14 days of age.

As John Paul II stated in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” techniques of artificial reproduction, while they can be used with the intention of serving life, actually “open the door to new threats against life” (No. 14). He criticized the destruction of embryos and warned against reducing human life to the level of mere biological material to be disposed of.

The fate of the frozen

Another ethical problem is what to do with the large number of frozen embryos left over from IVF treatments.

In Spain, the government plans to amend the laws regulating IVF to allow investigation with “surplus” embryos, the Madrid daily ABC reported Dec. 3. Use of the embryos will require the parents´ permission.

The National Commission for Artificial Reproduction expressed a different opinion. This body recommended that the “leftover” embryos be destroyed.

Spanish clinics now have an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 frozen embryos. The majority of these have been conserved for longer than the period required by a 1988 law.

Also on Dec. 3, the Spanish paper El País announced that an opinion poll organized by one of the clinics, and carried out among 260 couples, showed 61% in favor of either destroying the embryos or using them for experimentation.

The question of what to do with the frozen embryos stored in IVF clinics is a thorny matter. Catholic scholars are divided on the issue, and the Church has made no official declaration on this subject.

Catholic moralists agree that life begins at fertilization and must be protected till natural death. Therefore, frozen embryos have identity, dignity and an inherent right to life.

But moral theologian Monsignor William B. Smith and philosopher Mary Geach believe there is no morally licit way to rescue such embryos. Monsignor Smith cites the opposition of the text “Donum Vitae” to surrogate motherhood in defense of his position.

Others, among them Germain Grisez and William E. May, argue that it can be morally licit for a couple to volunteer to “adopt” a frozen embryo and have it implanted in another woman´s womb.

The ongoing debate was examined in the summer issue of the Human Life Review in an article by Brian Caulfield.

The article noted that Franciscan Brother Daniel Sulmasy, a physician who heads the medical ethics department at St. Vincent´s Medical Center in New York, sides with Monsignor Smith. Dr. Sulmasy cites the moral difficulties in the fact that a woman gets pregnant outside of the marital relations that produced the embryo.

But Robert George, an expert in natural law theory at Princeton University, agrees with May that a woman´s choice to adopt a frozen embryo may in some cases be laudable. He concede that this sort of adoption may involve using one´s body as an instrument, and that doing so may reduce the value of the body and of pregnancy as goods in themselves. But he concludes that there is “a more compelling case for permissibility.”

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said last spring that embryo adoption has “an end which is good” and cannot be dismissed as illicit.

But given the high failure rate of implantation and the fact that the process of freezing and thawing may cause many embryos to suffer genetic damage, he concludes, “Can we really counsel women to do this? It would mean counseling heroism. … The issue is one big question mark. The point is, we should never have gone down this road to begin with.”

Whether counties decide to make a U-turn on that road will determine the fate of countless tiny lives.

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