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Around the world, scientific developments involving the use of gametes and embryos in research are taking place. These developments further our understanding of various disease states as well as our understanding of normal growth and development. New Zealand researchers would like the opportunity to contribute to this work. However, the use of gametes and embryos for research raises ethical, spiritual and cultural issues.
Under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act (the HART Act), the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) must advise the Minister of Health on whether research using gametes and embryos should be allowed, and if so, whether limits should be placed on that research.
This Savation Army Talk Sheet deals only with the topic of embryonic stem cells. It does not include consideration of use of either adult stem cells or those taken from the umbilical cord of a normal
Reproductive technologies have expanded greatly in the past 30 years. There has been increased interest in the use of human gametes and embryos in research—including fundamental biological research, reproductive research, and as a source of stem cells.
As Christians, we believe that all life is sacred. Scripture tells us that God has plans for us while we are still forming inside our mothers:
‘Even then God had designs on me. Why, when I was still in my mothers’ womb He chose me and called me out of sheer generosity!’ (Galatians 11:5, The Message)
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart: I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ (Jeremiah 1:5, New International Version)
‘Just as you’ll never understand the mystery of life forming in a pregnant woman, so you’ll never understand the mystery at work in all that God does.’ (Ecclesiastes 11:5, The Message)
Would God’s plan be that embryos should be used to alleviate human suffering? This raises spiritual and ethical questions that may never be answered satisfactorily.
Human life begins from a single cell, which then divides many thousand times over to form all the different types of cells and tissues that make up the human body. Under current New Zealand law, it is an offence to do anything to cause the in vitro development of a human embryo outside of a human body beyond 14 days after its formation.
Human embryonic stem cells are extracted from the inner cell mass of the blastocyte stage, which occurs on days five to six of development. Once removed, the stem cells can be cultured to form a stable population. Embryonic stem cell lines are derived from embryos, but are not themselves embryos. Cells divide many times and very quickly in the early stages of development. As they divide, they differentiate into a vast array of different cells types found in adult humans.
This ability to develop such a large and diverse range of cell types means that human stem cells have the potential to form all of the 200 types of cells that make up the human body. This is why many researchers believe stem cells are crucial to our understanding of human development and disease.
Researchers do not yet know what chemical signals are used to direct embryonic stem cells to differentiate into specialised cell types inside the human body. If researchers can identify these signals, they may eventually be able to influence the type or types of cells into which embryonic stem cells mature, and then explore the possible therapeutic applications of this technology.
Because of the ethical debates associated with using human embryonic stem cells for research, efforts to create cells with the same properties that do not require the destruction of human embryos have been taken very seriously.
Gametes are either sperm or egg. It is believed that gametes and embryos can contribute towards scientific understanding in the four following areas:
Contributions to fundamental science
Fundamental research investigates the developmental pathways that lead to the birth of normal, healthy babies, as well as the causes of foetal abnormalities that lead to miscarriages or the birth of a child affected by developmental disorders.
By manipulating certain genes, researchers can study their specific function, which is helpful in identifying the genetic causes of certain diseases.
Contributions to fertility and infertility
Research with gametes and embryos has contributed to advances in the treatment of infertility, increased knowledge about the causes of miscarriage and the development of more effective contraception.
Discovering ways of improving gamete and embryo quality or of selecting embryos with the greatest potential for growth may improve the chances of a successful pregnancy. Progress in this area may also contribute to a reduction in miscarriage rates.
Contributions to the prevention of hereditary diseases
Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is a procedure for testing the embryo for the presence of chromosomal disorders or defective genes. In this procedure, one or two cells are extracted from the pre-embryo and tested.
PGD analysis can be used to check for any abnormalities in the number of genes or chromosomes. It can also be used to detect specific genes, as may be required in disorders such as muscular dystrophy, haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease.
Contributions to treating human disease
Most researchers see the main goal of human embryonic stem cell research as the development of new therapies through the discipline of regenerative medicine. Because human embryonic stem cells are able to give rise to any type of cell they may be able to be used to replace cells lost through injury or disease.
New Zealanders hold various spiritual and cultural values and beliefs that influence their perspectives on the use of gametes and embryos in research. Clearly, the topic of research using gametes and embryos raises complex and potentially divisive ethical and social questions.
How individuals and different communities respond to questions about embryo research depends primarily on how they view the moral status of the embryo; that is, the extent to which the embryo should be recognised as a human being (person), with all the rights and protections associated with personhood.
From a Maori perspective, there are a number of cultural and spiritual issues to be considered. These issues will vary between different hapu/iwi (tribal groupings) and therefore debate and discussion are a valuable part of making decisions about gametes and embryo research.
Some of the concerns for Maori include uneasiness about interfering with whakapapa (genealogy/identity), scientists ‘playing God’, as well as the responsibility to protect future generations from any unknown risks.
For many Maori, there is a strong desire to support whanau (family) members that require assistance for their personal health and because of this, there is some openness to considering the benefits that arise from this type of research.
The decision-making process that tends to occur within our modern society promotes the right of individual choice; however, this needs to be balanced with the more traditional collective process that is carried out within a whanau/hapu/iwi base. In this way, Maori are in a better position to discuss and represent their position/s in relation to this technology.
* Reference: Tipene-Matua, B. (2006). Having honest conversations about the impact of new technologies on indigenous people’s knowledge and values. Matauranga Taketake: Traditional Knowledge Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand.
The purpose of medical research is to alleviate suffering and preserve and enhance life. These are worthy aims, consistent with Christian ethics. However, they are not absolute as they may also come into conflict with and be subordinate to other Christian principles.
Christianity embraces a paradox in that Christians believe in a healing, redeeming God and are called upon to participate in God’s work in relieving suffering, bringing healing and establishing justice. At the same time, Christians recognise that some suffering is unavoidable and that they are called to suffer with and for Christ and with and for others. Such paradoxes cannot be resolved; they must be held in tension.
The Christian view is that it is more important to live and die well—that is, ethically—than to seek life and wellbeing above all else. In the world, suffering appears random, pointless and unfair. The Christian response is that while this is true, God saves us in our trouble rather than from it. God can use suffering for our own and others’ good and for God’s glory.
At one end of the spectrum are those who hold to the moral principle that the use of any embryo for research purposes, including stem cell research, is unethical and unacceptable. Arguing from this perspective, the destruction of embryos in the course of research cannot be justified.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the embryo has no moral status because it is not a human being and does not possess moral personhood. Arguing from this perspective, it is unethical not to use surplus in vitro fertilisation (IVF) embryos for research that aims to alleviate human suffering.
Many other people adopt stances at various points between these two ends of the spectrum, considering that embryos have rights and are owed protections due to their potential to become moral persons that can be harmed and benefited, or to their shared genetic heritage. Consequently, the ethical justification of research projects using human embryonic stem cells will depend on the potential benefits of the research and the quality of the scientific questions being asked.
Among those who support gamete and embryo research, it is generally considered that it can only be justified when as much information as possible has been obtained from non-human gametes and embryos.
Individuals and communities are likely to have different views on which purposes are acceptable, depending on how they view the relative harms and benefits of any research. Some individuals with life-threatening disease have spoken in support of research into curing human disease, whereas others consider that the potential benefits are so remote that the harm to the embryo does not justify such research. They may, however, be able to support research into infertility where the benefits may be more apparent to them. Whatever one’s individual perspective, it will be important to consider what is best for New Zealand as a whole.
A number of factors are relevant to considering whether gamete and embryo research should be allowed and, if so, where the line should be drawn to safeguard New Zealanders’ ethical, spiritual and cultural concerns. These factors include the extent to which decisions on future gamete and embryo research should be influenced by precedents in current policy settings and legislation that take an implicit or explicit position on the moral status of the embryo.
Under the HART Act, human reproductive research on embryos is not explicitly prohibited. However, only research using donated non-viable embryos can proceed as a guideline is in place only for research using embryos from this source.