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Pope condemns IVF and all that stuff… just like that! March 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Frozen embryos, Religion.
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With the weekend that is in it let us turn to a religious themed story. Because as fairly recently reported

Addressing a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this morning [at the Vatican in late January], Pope Benedict XVI asked the Congregation to focus on “the difficult and complex problems of bioethics”.

In his remarks he explained the Church’s prohibition on artificial procreation.

Do go on…

Artificial procreation, such as in vitro fertilization, he said, has given rise to “new problems,” such as “the freezing of human embryos, embryonal reduction, pre-implantation diagnosis, stem cell research and attempts at human cloning”. All these, he said, “clearly show how, with artificial insemination outside the body, the barrier protecting human dignity has been broken.”

Now here he loses me. Even if one were to agree with the debatable notion that all these other issues are ‘problematic’ in any other sense than being relatively ‘new’, and let’s be serious these technologies have been around for a while now, what precisely is the issue with freezing of human embryo’s? Simply because it involves artificial insemination outside the body (at this point, who knows what the future will bring) doesn’t really cut it as a criticism. Still, let’s consider further.

The Pope added: “When human beings in the weakest and most defenceless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological matter’, how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something’, thus placing the very concept of human dignity in doubt”.

Again, cloning, embryo freezing, pre-implantation diagnosis (which incidentally is generally acknowledged to be of varying utility) don’t per se involve the destruction of embryo’s, although the latter might lead to same.

Judie Brown, President of American Life League points out in her new book – Saving Those Damned Catholics – that while it is official Church teaching, most Catholics in North America have no clue that artificial procreation is immoral. Brown commented to LifeSiteNews.com on the Holy Father’s statements, saying, “As elated as I am about Pope Benedict’s comments this morning once again repeating the Church’s condemnation of the practice of in vitro fertilization, I am saddened by the realization that the American Catholic bishops refuse to even take up an explanation of what the Church teaches let alone condemn the evil practice of in vitro fertilization.”

Hmmm… these might though be those same US Catholics who are aware of the Church teachings on contraception and tend to ignore them as well. Indeed there can’t be that many abroad who aren’t aware the that Church generally regards IVF and Assisted Reproductive Technologies with some disdain.

In his remarks the Pope stressed that the Church “cannot and should not intervene on every scientific innovation.” However, he said, “it has the task of reiterating the great values at stake, and providing the faithful, and all men and women of good will, with ethical-moral principals and guidelines for these new and important questions.”

The problem is, as I suspect he knows, that while it is generally easier by far to put in blanket prohibitions on various things, these tend to simplify enormously complex issues to absurd levels leaving vast holes through which people can drive their own moral viewpoints. Nor are these ‘new’ questions.

“The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field”, he said, “are: unconditional respect for the human being as a person, from conception to natural death; and respect for the origin of the transmission of human life through the acts of the spouses”.

I don’t want this to descend into a ‘let’s take out the sharp pointy wooden pointing stick and give the Pope a few jabs with it’ sort of post. He strikes me as humane a person as one might expect to head up the Catholic Church. He is consistent with his own belief systems and that is to be applauded. One might reasonably ask, how could he say otherwise? But, it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? A nice reductionist argument which seems to cut out everything that deviates from supposed ‘norms’. Because, and it’s odd – I’ve been wondering about this in other contexts, every supposedly cut and dried issue is open to interpretation, gray areas, uncertainty and so on. Every concept used in the above sentence of the Pope is nowhere near beyond discussion, debate and disagreement from the definition of conception, to that of ‘natural’ and ‘acts of … spouses’. His certainty is matched only by the uncertainty or active indifference of his flock. And the thing with technology is that it proliferates. Every day more and more people know someone or another, entirely ordinary people, who have had to resort to these technologies, not for pernicious or malign reasons but … and this is important… for very human reasons. And those people know other people and what a decade and a half ago was exotic is now, if not quite mainstreamed, certainly far from unusual. And just as Catholics will disagree with the pronouncements on contraception, so they too will at least dispute the approach on ART.

I also think that on a conceptual level the Church and its outriders in Pro-Life groups face a problem. Abortion appeals to the ‘yuch factor’, one of the reasons for the concentration by some campaigns on what is termed partial birth abortion, and one should never underestimate that as a dynamic within human behaviour. But IVF involves an opposite dynamic, one where life is enabled and therefore locks into a very much more contradictory narrative from the point of view of the Church. Selling that as a negative is a big sell. Which is why there seems to be such a concentration on the extremes – such as cloning, or as the news yesterday reported:

The Welsh secretary, Paul Murphy, is one of several Catholic senior government figures pressing the prime minister to allow all MPs a free vote on the human embryology and fertilisation bill later this spring. Des Browne, the defence secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, have indicated privately that they want to vote against the proposals and will at the very least abstain.

The cabinet revolt comes as one of Britain’s most senior Catholics accuses Brown of plotting a “monstrous” attack on human life by pressing ahead with the bill. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Scottish Catholic church, says the legislation would allow “grotesque” and “hideous” procedures to create hybrid embryos for experimentation – measures other European countries had outlawed. In his Easter homily in Edinburgh tomorrow, O’Brien will claim that the human fertilisation and embryology bill attacks human rights, human dignity and human life.

It is because, in part, hybrid embryo’s also have something of a ‘yuch’ factor, that we see them pushed into the centre of the debate – just as we saw recently the use of hyperbole and exaggeration in a connected debate. I can’t help but feel that by doing so they discredit their own stance, or as also reported:

Leading scientists accused the Catholic church of “scaremongering” over research which had the potential to save many lives. “This is yet another example where it is clear that the Catholic church is misrepresenting science because it doesn’t understand the basic facts,” said Dr Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London.

Benedict, and the good Cardinal no doubt see themselves as holding a line and perhaps even potentially able to push back some of what has already gone before. There is a debate to be had, but to my mind it may be more a case of regulation than prohibition. They appear optimistic that it may be otherwise.

In that I fear they are in for further disappointment.

Embryo Watch – Part II…or just what is it about scientific research that it is so fast-moving? August 27, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Frozen embryos, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.
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Not three weeks have gone by and already science has caught up with and overtaken the current embryoresearch.org campaign – referred to earlier on the blog.

Those of you interested in such matters will recall that I pointed to a serious error of fact in the campaign leaflet where:

It also states that “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos. This always kills the developing baby”. Unfortunately that’s not exactly true either. A fairly widely available technique called PGD, or Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, is used in IVF where a number of cells are removed from an embryo and tested for various hereditary genetic diseases. The embryo, can then be implanted inside the womb and can lead to successful pregnancy. This technology allows a fix which the leaflet doesn’t mention.

Now, I keep my finger on the pulse of ART therapies for one reason and another, but even I was surprised by the following report in the Guardian [here] which underlined and extended that point where new research precisely allows the removal of a cell from an embryo, a process which – as with PGD – is within the statistical margin of error indicating any negative effects regarding the further implantation of the embryo.

To quote:

Scientists led by Robert Lanza at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts created the stem cells by adapting a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is already used in fertility clinics to check IVF embryos for genetic defects.

In PGD, a single cell is plucked from an embryo when it is a three-day-old ball of only eight cells. The cell is then tested for defects such as cystic fibrosis, and if it is healthy, the embryo is implanted. More than 2,000 babies have been born worldwide following PGD.

Dr Lanza’s group showed that the single cell removed from an embryo can be grown into many cells overnight, and some of those can then be turned into embryonic stem cells. In tests, the team took 91 clumps of cells from 16 embryos and created two sets of embryonic stem cells, according to Nature today.

So immediately this removes the central charge of the embryoresearch.org campaign. To put it simply in the same words as embryoresearch.org “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos (Actually they don’t, they remove a cell – not a stem cell – from the embryo). This does not kill the developing baby”.

There remain problems with the technique. It remains to be seen will it be widely used, particularly in view of the likely removal of the Presidential veto on state funding in the US on embryo research after the next US Presidential Election (all the leading contenders have indicated they will remove it). And it’s also arguable, as I’ve noted before, that picking this ground on which to make a stand in some respects cedes ground where none might have been necessary. Yet, it makes it clear that embryoresearch.org must completely reconsider the central thrust of their public pronouncements to date.
There are currently posters around the country advertising a meeting in Wynns Hotel, Dublin, next week organised by embryoresearch.org. I’m almost certain that embryoresearch.org will be delighted by this news which vindicates their approach to protecting life from conception onwards, while also potentially opening up new medical techniques for children and adults suffering a broad spectrum of chronic and fatal conditions, and will take that opportunity to retract their previous leaflets and wind up the campaign.

A less than perfect storm – embryos and Irish politics. August 11, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Frozen embryos, Ireland, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.
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This morning a leaflet from www.embryoresearch.org dropped through my door. Accompanied by a photograph of a smiling baby was the attention grabbing headline “Don’t use me for spare parts” and the slogan “Ban Embryo Research and Cloning”. The leaflet was issued by Youth Defence and goes into some detail about how it is wrong to use embryos for stem cell research.

In a way it’s a perfect storm of issues, combining distrust of politics; “We all know this government likes to please the multinationals”, a sub-Chomskyian distrust of the corporate sector and highly questionable assertions; “some bio-tech companies want to make huge profits from abusing human life…that’s because ever patient would have to pay for a cloned embryo which would be used to produce stem cells. And they would spend a fortune on drugs to prevent the embryonic stem cells being rejected by their immune system”, fear of biological catastrophe; “Messing with nature never works – our experience with mad Cow Disease should have taught us that” and the elision of unborn babies with embryos “they want to give multinationals bio-technology companies the right to experiment on unborn babies”.

Unfortunately it’s factually inaccurate. The leaflet claims that “no-one should be allowed to experiment on human life. Yet some powerful corporations want to do just that. Moreover they want the right to do it here, in Ireland”. In fact the government has been clear that such experimentation would never be permitted in Ireland. It’s also doubtful that corporations do want to experiment here when there are much more hospitable locations for such research across Europe and the US.

And, equally unfortunately it’s out of date. The leaflet was clearly generated off the back of the recent events in Europe regarding EU funding for stem cell research, which does indeed use embryo’s as noted [here]. However, it’s interesting to note the embryoresearch website hasn’t been updated in months since the EU agreed, much along the lines of the governments approach, to allow research where it was deemed appropriate by local populations.

The real ire in the leaflet is, perhaps naturally, reserved for stem cell research. Here it is littered with some interesting statements. “Embryonic stem cells have been hyped” and “after more than 20 years of experimentations involving embryonic stem cells, no-one has been cured or treated. Not one person”. Well the first statement is probably true, but the second is not entirely accurate. The first embryonic stem cell research kicked off in 1981 with experiments derived from mice embryo’s. It is only since 1998 that cells derived from human embryo’s have been successfully grown. Science takes time.

It also states that “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos. This always kills the developing baby”. Unfortunately that’s not exactly true either. A fairly widely available technique called PGD, or Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, is used in IVF where a number of cells are removed from an embryo and tested for various hereditary genetic diseases. The embryo, can then be implanted inside the womb and can lead to successful pregnancy. This technology allows a fix which the leaflet doesn’t mention. The status of the embryo is important. Away from the glossy sun-filled uplands which the leaflet basks in concerning human fertility the truth is that embryos often don’t develop – indeed I’ve previously mentioned the enormous number of fertililsed embryo’s which never implant. In many embryo’s (which can be identified through PGD) there is an incorrect number of chromosomes that from the start prevents further development of the embryo with resulting cell death. Therefore such embryo’s have no chance of ever becoming ‘human’. Howard Zucker and Donald Landry, of Columbia University [here] , argue that in effect the status of such embryos is exactly the same as that of brain-dead adults who have organs removed for transplant, since the stem cells are nonetheless perfectly adequate for research. There are other techniques which involve altering eggs prior to fertilisation which would also lead to the same outcome.

Whether it’s wise to move onto that terrain, in other words to seek to accept and bypass the objections that the leaflet raises is a moot point. The reality is that the objections raised can be overcome in ways which remain within a largely ‘pro-life’ ethic, yet none of this is mentioned or raised in the leaflet or on the accompanying website.

The leaflet keenly promotes adult stem cells, which do as certain treatments work. However there are problems with adult stem cells, unlike embryonic stem cells they do not appear to be able to develop into all tissue and cell types limiting their utility. Because they are taken from adults they are subject to wear and tear which limits their effectiveness. Hence the interest in embryonic stem cells which are obviously newer and have the potential to develop into all cell and tissue types.

The leaflet claims that the majority of Irish people are against such research, which is very questionable, but it goes on to describe such research as ‘creepy’ and ‘barbaric’. Intriguingly in polling in the US support for stem cell research is high, well above the 70% mark, even amongst those who describe themselves as religious.

And the dog that doesn’t bark? Well the leaflet states “In order to allow these gruesome practices, our government will need to amend the Constitution. they want to say that embryos have no rights unless they are implanted in their mother’s womb”. Interesting in that it doesn’t make any mention of one area, regarding which they might not get a sympathetic hearing, that of IVF. Whether Youth Defence have a position on that issue is difficult to tell from the leaflet, or indeed their website. As recent events indicate even those self-described as ‘pro-life’ have differing attitudes towards it with some accepting the necessity for IVF but seeking to place limits on the numbers of fertilised embryo’s or positing ‘adoption’ of embryo’s.

Will this run and run? Difficult to say. In some respects the leaflet is part of a campaign that lost steam almost as soon as it was dreamt up in that the core complaint is simply wrong and won’t have any impact – with the possible exception of IVF practice – in this state. Most likely it is a means of keeping ‘pro-life’ issues on the boil – particularly in an environment where the status of the embryo in Constitutional terms is wending it’s way through the legal process.

In an electoral sense it is hard to tell how this one will play. It has been striking – for me – how this society has altered even in the last ten years and how such issues have simply slid off the political and cultural agenda. Whether that betokens a vague liberalism (of a sort), or indifference, is difficult to assess. Culture war issues usually do well in times when the economy is buoyant – as seen during the Clinton years in the US – a point that it would take a thesis to tease out. On the other hand the high water mark of the ‘pro-life’ campaign – in terms of general public support – was most definitely the mid-1980s during some of the grimmest economic times this state ever saw. Now we have experienced the longest period of sustained growth and economic well-being in our history perhaps the culture wars will return.

Finally, I’ve noted before there are differing viewpoints on all these issues, and all should be considered carefully with due respect, but it does no-one any great service to overstate, exaggerate or promote inaccurate information.

US and them…Stem Cell Research on both sides of the Atlantic and why we might be a little more similar than we think. July 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, European Politics, Frozen embryos, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.
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I’ve been reading in the Irish Times and the Guardian about the stem cell controversy [subscription required], and what is striking is how in the US the approach taken by Bush, where he has vetoed state funding for such research despite overwhelming Congressional support, is trumpeted as an example of the backwardness of his government, whereas to date there has been hardly a peep about the attitude of our colleagues in Europe. Until this week, that is.
Let’s consider the way the issue stacks up on this side of the Atlantic. The basic outlines of it are as follows. The EU also voted on a €50 billion science investment programme. So far so non-contentious. The problem being that as part of the programme there is explicit funding provided for embryonic stem-cell research. Generally this sort of research is limited in Europe as the IT notes ‘under strict conditions on surplus embryos created as part of the in-vitro fertilisation process’.

The Irish position, as articulated by Micheál Martin was that ‘ethical subsidiarity’ should be maintained, which means effectively that while such research would not be permitted here and no funding would go to it, it would be allowed and funded within European states which allow such research to be conducted. One aspect of government thinking according to the IT report is ‘that it is concerned that a protracted disagreement or the emergence of a group of states holding a blocking veto could result in the entire science investment package being stalled”. And the investment isn’t inconsiderable. Irish researchers received €200 million from the last investment package – they’re hoping for more this time.

So how does the rest of Europe see it? Well, the lines were fairly clearly drawn between two camps. On the pro-embryonic stem cell research side we had the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. On the opposing side we had Germany, Poland, Austria and Malta (Slovenia defected to the other side). I find this latter camp very interesting. Germany has some of the most restrictive IVF laws in Europe, to the extent that German nationals (as quoted in the Sunday Business Post at the weekend [here]) are voting with their feet in order to avail of more liberal services abroad. Indeed it’s entire approach to such issues appears cautious in the extreme – yet it is a relatively liberal society. Nor is this some sort of Catholic/Protestant or more likely Catholic/non-Religious divide. Spain was, last time I looked, at least nominally Catholic.

Anyhow, to assuage German feeling, a fudge was done and the EU Commission stated that EU money won’t be used to fund any research that destroys human embryo’s Individual countries would retain their right to ban or permit such research according to their own preference, and it was decided that new “EU rules mean that this part of the process will have to be funded from outside the EU budget”. [here]

Germany gets a stronger restatement of already existing EU rules, but everyone is allowed to go their own way. Which curiously is not that different to the US position – although the financial slack will be made up from private, rather than national funding in the US.

The point being that there are within Europe, as within the US, genuine and significant differences of opinion. The Irish view, weirdly seems to me to almost ‘federalist’ in the US sense of the word, and none the worse for that. In a context where interstate travel is relatively easy I don’t think that it’s a bad idea for different European states to have different approaches to ethical issues as determined by their populations. Is that mealy-mouthed? Is Martin, and indeed myself, attempting to make a virtue of necessity? Perhaps, but we know to our cost how destructive protracted arguments about such issues can be. A plurality along the lines suggested in the terms ‘ethical subsidiarity’ is realistic.

I wonder, though on a different level, if any of this means anything or is it just gesture politics writ large. In the US although federal funds won’t be available, private funding is available. Those supporting such research include such luminaries as Nancy Reagan amongst others. When issues cut across parties in that way you can be certain that there will be further fudges so that everyone walks away with something.

Above and beyond that one doesn’t have to believe in the onset of some sort of genetic Singularity to see that biology is going to be a major area of change over the course of this century. What interests me is, that rather like fusion, the introduction of new techniques and processes in this field is taking much longer than was originally thought. That may well change.

In the long run…and after all, there’s always a long run, I imagine that such research within strict guidelines will become normalised. How do I feel about that? I honestly don’t know. The old arguments about maximisation of good seem to me to be fairly strong in this instance. I don’t personally buy into the idea that the embryo per se is necessarily the absolute defining point at which life starts. The body itself in it’s almost profligate shedding of embryo’s (six to eight out of every ten never implant under ‘natural’ conditions) seems to me to indicate that more is required if we are to have a meaningful definition. But that’s just me, and I’m open to alternative interpretations.

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