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« Welcome to College | Main | The Coming Evangelical Collapse? »

March 27, 2009


I'm having a problem posting a comment... just testing.

"If we can educate people, perhaps we can change some minds, or at least we can put an end to the dismissive anger people have against our position because they've absorbed the idea that we're "anti-science." If we can do that, we can get a real debate going."

Dismissive anger indeed. It's difficult to have a real debate about the issues when the instant that you say that you have any kind of ethical or moral concerns about the use of embryos for research, you are immediately branded as "anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-suffering people, anti-dying children, etc..." Even when you point out that this charge would also have to be levied against such scientists like James Thomson and Shinya Yamanaka, the pioneers of iPSC research, among other leading stem cell researchers who have voiced concerns over the use of embryos for research, the irony of the attack is often lost or ignored.

I've certainly observed #3 as well. When someone made a comment about how he was healed 4 years ago of a spinal injury by stem cell treatments, and then followed that statement with an epithet against Bush and the Republicans, I made the observation that he had actually been treated by adult stem cells, which were never restricted by Bush's 2001 stem cell policy. Pointing out this one clarifying fact immediately made me the target of a number of other anti-"anti-ESCR" members in the group.

But there is perhaps hope for a common ground in the debate. I just read about several studies in which researchers were able to obtain stem cells from embryos that have been deemed organismically dead:
Stem cell lines created from discarded IVF embryos

Derivation of Human Embryonic Stem Cells from Developing and Arrested Embryos

The researchers determined that these “arrested embryos,” which had stopped the process of cleavage and development, could still be used to extract viable ESC lines. These would not be the embryos that are still potentially viable if given the chance to implant; these would be the ones that I would agree are already dead. They have stopped developing, and even if inserted into a womb they would never implant and develop into a baby. To me, this would be akin to parents of children who have died donating their organs and tissues to further research. The critical distinction for me is that the embryo is already dead from natural causes before its cells are harvested, rather than being killed by the act of harvesting the cells.

This seems to be an ethically responsible way of obtaining embryonic stem cells without requiring the destruction of living human embryos.

This needs to be looked into deeper, but I hope that this can provide a common ground between those who believe in the need to continue research with ESCs and those who are opposed to research that involves taking what they believe is a human life.

At the very least, it can help reasonable people see that we do not argue against the destruction of embryos while turning a blind eye to everything else; it is because we actually see that there are alternative means of obtaining stem cells for research and treatment which gives us hope that our concerns about the use of human life in research and the concerns of those who believe that ESCR is still necessary may not be mutually exclusive.

I was glad to read today that Scottish scientists will be working to develop a new supply of blood for transfusions.

They plan to base it on ESC's.

A five day embryo is a clump of undifferentiated cells inside a ball of 'pre-placenta cells'. A grand total of 100 to 200 cells. I have no problem destroying it for basic research or other uses.


Hi RonH,

I was wondering what genus and species that clump of undifferentiated cells is.

Or do you mean that because it is undifferintiated, that particular information can't be known?

If this isn't a human being, wouldn't it be dangerous (and stupid) to use the results on human beings?


Thanks for the reply.

Talking of a human being is incorrect. At this stage, an embryo could twin and become two embryos. Or it could fuse with another embryo becoming a chimera - with some cells that have one genetic identity and other cells that have another.

The species can be known: the dna or proteins would be homo sapiens.

I expect the danger or risk would depend on
many things - not just species.


>> "Talking of a human being is incorrect. At this stage, an embryo could twin and become two embryos."

One, two, three (or eight ;) seems to me, if we are concerned as to whether we are destroying human persons or not...the number is irrelevant.

I cannot justify how a person's size, level of development, environment, or even their degree of dependency disqualifies them from enjoying the human rights you and I both, perhaps, take for granted.

We know we are looking at the earliest stages of development for a human being(s) (i.e. another one of us) you'd still be alright with their destruction in the name of "basic research or other uses?"

We are not talking about destroying epethelial cells or sampling fast-twitch muscle fibers. We are not even talking about the stuff people are made of...we are talking about the youngest people alive being destroyed in and of themselves.

You and I each began as what you described above: a clump of undifferentiated cells inside a ball of 'pre-placenta cells'. That's what Planned Parenthood calls it too. And they have a vested interest in making sure their clients know no more than just that.

My concern: We are so concerned with seeing what happens that we don't actually see what's happening.



Suppose a woman's womb contains two embryos.
I assume, you say this is two persons.

OK, let's see.
At five days the embryos fuse to make a chimera.
Nine months later one baby girl is born.*

How many persons is this?


* She is amazing. She doesn't seem different and is very probably unaware of her condition. Some of her cells are descended from each of the original two embryos. For example, her blood may be be from one and her skin from the other. As far as I know, she could have two genetic fathers or even two genetic mothers. Or even two of each! Come to think of it she could have two genders (genetically, anyway).

WNYC's 'Radio Lab' did a great story on chimeras.

Hi RonH,

If scientists had the means to acquire all the pluripotent stem cells that they need for research without requiring the destruction of living embryos, would you agree that embryo-destructive research should then be stopped, as there would be no further need to use living embryos as a source?

Hi Kendalf,

Thanks for the question.

No I wouldn't agree.

Even if ASC's were 100% adequate to study therapies (And how would you ever know that?), ASC's can't ever be used in the study of embryos and we have lot's to learn about embryos.

Besides, there would still be the embryos created for IVF but not implanted. Here, there seem to be three choices: accumulate embryos indefinitely with no expectation that they will ever be implanted, destroy them, or ban IVF. Are you calling for the banning of IVF?

Again, I have no problem with destroying five day embryos.
I see no reason to prohibit it nor any need to justify it.


Hi RonH,

Thanks for the chimera article.

I think perhaps we (or maybe just me) have missed the forest for the trees here. Whether "chimera" baby or point is that people should not be destroyed for research purposes.

The chimera factor does not detract from my initial position that we are destroying living human beings.

I understand you take no issue with the destruction of five day old embryos. That's where where our views diametrically oppose each other. I simply assert whether a person is one hour old or ten years old, we are still talking about a person. I would also assert that scientific fact is on my side here, as far as what "it" is that we are talking about destroying...however, that would mean nothing to a Peter Singer insofar as opinions vary on the value of human life. The jury has been back for some time. We know we are talking about human life. That begs the question, "Do we continue ESCR in spite of what we know?"

The "could we" question has been deified far and above the "should we" question. (As an aside, Obama still maintains it is unethical to clone. Why do you think he asserts that position knowing how liberal he is with other areas?)

Singer purports "having no problem" killing a newborn child up until it is twenty-eight days old (i.e. out of the womb, delivered, already born) and walks PETA's line such that there is no moral distinction between people and animals.

Do you see things his way?

If no objections at five-days old, when would you start objecting to an embryo's destruction, and why?


It would be interesting to discuss some of the new things you raise, but can we clear up an issue I raised earlier first?

I'll say it another way:

Karen seems to be one person.
Her dna proves she formed from two embryos.

Now, you hold that an embryo is a person.

What I want to know for you is: What happened to the 'other' person you say was in the womb with Karen?


Hi RonH,

Sorry for asking you to respond to two lines of questioning at once. Just wanted to clarify my question. I wasn't referring to ASCs, I was referring to iPSCs, which many studies have shown display all the same qualities that make embryonic stem cells valuable for research. But in addition, I was referring to the studies I cited in my first comment that showed that embryonic stem cells could be derived from arrested development (ie dead) embryos. The stem cells derived by this process are no different than those derived by the destruction of living embryos, with the key exception being that the act of harvesting the cells does not kill the embryo (it was already dead).

In regard to your question about IVF, no I do not call for the ban of IVF, but I think it is reasonable to call for a reform of how IVF is done. I believe that no viable embryos should be created during IVF that will not be placed in a womb and at least given the chance to implant and develop. Advances in the success of freezing and thawing human oocytes gives me hope that future IVF procedures will not require the creation of more zygotes than will be inserted at any one time, without having to repeat the difficult process of harvesting more eggs from the woman each time.

Hi Kendalf,

It's ok - I like both lines of questioning. I am running out of steam for today, though. :)

I hope iPSCs go far. They promise therapy that genetically matches the patient. But their existence does not create a problem with ESCs that didn't exist before (as far as I'm concerned). So whatever the success of iPCSs, I would still allow and fund ESC research as before - to the extent that people in the field still see/show reason to do it.

I think your position on IVF is compatible with the assumption that an embryo is a person (which clearly I disagree with). But you know, most regular old-fashioned embryos die - maybe 80%. So it seems you should first call for a research program to find out why and find out how save them if they can be saved. The numbers far exceed those in IVF. What do you think?


The two have indeed become one.

As I understand chimerism, the two distinct - fraternal - twins (each with individual DNA) fuse at a very early stage of development, prior to the development of limbs and organs. This fusion results in the growth of one individual with two distinct DNA strands: e.g. the person's liver may possess DNA One and the spleen DNA Two, etc.

(Remember Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly"? Instead of the human absorbing the fly, the two entities were fused into one being.)

If no fusion took place, however, two distinct people would be developing and growing, i.e. fraternal twins.

I don't know how this fusion occurs nor why.

I think I see where you're headed...
Because we have one person with two distinct lines of DNA, would that person have to pay double admission at the movies?

(Please forgive me for that. I hope the humor did not offend. I think your question is on target and worthy of much consideration.)

Hi RonH,

Thank you for taking the time to answer to both lines of questioning. No hurry on responding to this one.

I'm certainly aware of the low percentage of "old-fashioned" (ha!) embryos who make it through; my wife and I went through our share of heartache before she conceived and gave birth to our son not too long ago. And though it would be appreciated by hopeful parents if the percentage of successful pregnancies could be increased, it is my understanding that the majority of the embryos that die or don't implant in the uterus have some sort of chromosomal or other defect that would have barred them from developing normally, and this is nature's way of painlessly ending early what would have been a non-viable pregnancy anyway.

A large number of embryos created during the IVF process are also unviable and unable to continue developing for the same reasons. This review from the Journal of Clinical Investigation defines what I consider to be a reasonable and responsible criteria for determining the death of a developing human being, thus establishing a means by which the ethical framework established for organ donation and transplantation from deceased adults can be applied to the obtainment of stem cells from dead human embryos. In combination with the studies I cited earlier (eg. Stem cell lines created from discarded IVF embryos) showing that ESCs can be successfully derived from these arrested development embryos, I am hopeful that this can provide a common ground between those who believe in the need to continue research with ESCs and those who are opposed to research that involves taking what they believe is a human life.

It seems to me that this is one of the rare moments in the history of science where we can both have our cake and eat it at the same time. That is, we can have all the benefits that can come from embryonic stem cell research but without actually requiring any more living embryos to be destroyed for this research, and that is a breakthrough that I think we can all celebrate, regardless of our respective views about the moral status of embryos.


This is a fascinating discussion. I can imagine that some people might be horrified to learn that 80% or so of embryos die prematurely. (Some readers might regard this as the equivalent of 4/5 infants dying prematurely.) Do you think there are any prospects of developing IVF procedures that would improve on this percentage? If so, how might this affect our moral obligations?


"Here, there seem to be three choices: accumulate embryos indefinitely with no expectation that they will ever be implanted, destroy them, or ban IVF."

There's actually a fourth option--adoption. And there's currently a waiting list. More people want to adopt embryos and carry them to term than are being given them.

Good point, Fourth.

But profit margins aren't high enough...


In our secularized culture, there is a fine line between charging for the implantation procedure, and simply selling a child.

David, Kendalf,

Sorry I don't know when I'll have time to really reply here. (Trying to hang on in the car industry.)

I have to say "The two have indeed become one." took me by surprise. I don't think I've ever heard that said about two persons before.

I can see it offers a for you in answering my question. But is it sound from a Christian point of view or does it stand on it's own?


>>"I have to say "The two have indeed become one." took me by surprise. I don't think I've ever heard that said about two persons before."

Have you ever heard "And the two shall become one flesh?"

Its a reference to marriage in Scripture. But it, too, speaks of two people becoming "one."

I know chimerism is a "different animal", so to speak, but the idea, generally speaking, is quite antique. Another persepective: Children, in fact, are "one flesh" resulting from the marriage union of two.

Chimerism, it seems to me, is a literal "physiological union" of two becoming one...albiet very early in development when the cellular structures of the two distinct twins are still "pliable" enough to do so.

If the "unification" of both cells into one another did not occur flawlessly, we would see things happen that many consider physical oddities...multiple organs, more than two arms, an extra head... The stuff parent's nightmares can be made of...

But because the chimera union occurs so early and is "flawlessly synced", we only see the distinct DNA's present, but not "abnormalities", per se.

I think because it stands on its own, perhaps, it is sound from a Christian perspective...and not the other way around. This discussion lends itself to defining what is natural as a God-intended creation versus unnatural, or post-fall from grace. I.e. does man have a hand in it? - chemical, environmental, et al.

(Pressed for time here, so I must exit. Will check in later.)

Hopefully my here comment doesn't lead astray an interesting discussion.

David, it seems that the mere "physiological union" isn't the issue. The issue is not about what happens to the flesh, but with what happens to the persons. By hypothesis there was once two people. Afterward there is one. When the two "fleshes" merge into one, do the two people also change into one person? (Do the two original people continue to exist? Did the newly formed person exist prior to the merge?)

Christians don't believe that in marriage two people literally become one person (or do they?). Likewise, while Christians maintain that there is but one God, don't they still keep the persons of the trinity distinct?

I'm not saying that it's necessarily ridiculous to say that persons can merge. It may just be an awesome fact that they sometimes do. But such awesomeness should at least be appreciated.

Very interesting... I wish I had time to more closely follow the discussion here.

Occasional, if I may throw in my two cents, I would think a chimera is the merging of two persons in such a way that results in one person who is different from the original two. I haven't a clue how that works. It certainly is an awesome thing!

I also think you're right about marriage. The two become one in such a way as to remain two distinct persons. It's the same thing in the Trinity. Now there is a sense in which the union of two persons (or three) acts as a single person, but I don't think it's the same as a chimera.

"The two have indeed become one."

David, if you are still out there, I think you are on the hook to defend this or abandon it.

Otherwise, I regard the chimera attack I gave above as successful against the SLED argument (against ESCR). Five day embryos can't be regarded in light of it.

By the way twining, the splitting of embryos in two, seems to pose the same problem for the idea that five day embryos are persons.


"regarded as persons in light of it"

Ron, I have to admit that I really don't understand why the fact that an embryo can split or that two can become one proves that it/they weren't previously valuable human beings. Can you explain your reasons for thinking this? If all human beings are valuable, not based on characteristics, but on the fact that they're human beings, why is this relevant?

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