Father Tad Pacholczyk is convinced that embryonic stem cells will someday cure diseases.
"I often say to people the day is coming when you're going to open the New York Times, and above the fold, it's going to say, 'Embryos cure Parkinson's,' or 'Embryos cure diabetes,'" he said.
That's why Father Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said that the efforts to help people understand the immorality of embryo reserch, including human cloning, must focus on humanizing the issue and appreciating our own embryonic origins, not just on the desired results of embryonic or other types of stem-cell research.
The subject of human cloning has been around for much of the 20th century and beyond. It became a hot topic in 1996 when Dolly the sheep was cloned via a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer.
A decade later, cloning came to the forefront in Missouri with the narrow passage of Amendment 2, a ballot initiative in 2006 that constitutionally protects embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning.
The Catholic Church has always held that stem-cell research and therapies are morally acceptable, as long as they don't involve the creation and destruction of human embryos. The Church also supports research and therapies using adult stem cells, which are cells that come from any person who has been born — including umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, skin and other organs.
Father Pacholczyk, who is teaching a course on bioethics and life issues at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary this semester, said it is very easy to depersonalize humans when they are in the earliest stages of life.
The National Institutes of Health defines a human embryo as "the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation." An embryo in its first days of development is no bigger than a period at the end of a sentence, Father Pacholczyk often points out.
When people argue that the embryo is too small to consider its humanity, Father Pacholczyk, a neuroscientist and theologian, uses an analogy of a bomber plane flying high in the sky.
"You see all the little tiny people on the ground, and you say, 'oh, everything below is so small — it really doesn't make a difference if I drop a bomb.' Well, yes it does make a difference, and everyone knows that it does. So it doesn't work to say that (embryos) are tiny and insignificant.
"You have to walk through these simple examples to help people order their thinking again. Sometimes I'll say, 'As a former embryo myself, I have strong opinions about how embryos should be treated.'"
Legislation in Missouri
In the past decade since the passage of Amendment 2, pro-life groups including Missouri Right to Life and the Missouri Catholic Conference have worked to prevent state funding from going toward human cloning or embryonic stem-cell research.
The concerns with Amendment 2 were twofold, said Jerry Nieters, general counsel with Missouri Right to Life. For starters, it created a false definition of human cloning. The language states that human cloning is banned; however, cloning is defined in the amendment as "to implant in a uterus" an embryo created through somatic cell nuclear transfer. The other issue, Nieters said, is that the amendment includes a provision that says the government could not reduce or eliminate funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
For now, "we're stuck with the language in our Missouri constitution," he said. But on the funding front, there have been some developments.
In 2011, Missouri passed a law that established the Missouri Science Innovation and Reinvestment Act (MOSIRA), which would have provided state funding and tax incentives for new technology businesses, including those engaged in life sciences research. However, in 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.
Nieters said that following the court's decision, Missouri Right to Life and other pro-life groups have worked to place language in appropriations bills stating that the Life Sciences Research Trust Fund (which was established in Missouri in 2003 as part of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies) may not use public funds in research that involves abortion, human cloning or other prohibited human research.
Another requirement under Amendment 2 is that institutions involved in stem-cell research must annually report their work to the Missouri Secretary of State. Tyler McClay, general counsel with the Missouri Catholic Conference, said that the conference monitors those reports to ensure that no state funding is going to embryonic stem-cell research. (Federal and private funding, however, are other potential resources for these studies, McClay noted.)
In the most recent report in June 2017 (which looks at the work done in the previous year, 2016), Washington University had 15 studies involving human embryonic-stem cell research, and the University of Missouri-Columbia had two studies. What's interesting, McClay said, is that the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., one of the largest financial backers of Amendment 2, has not done any research projects involving human embryonic stem cells since 2009.
New developments in stem-cell research
In 2006, induced pluripotent stem cells emerged when Shinya Yamanaka and a group of scientists pioneered the technique in Japan using mouse cells. The practice involves taking mature somatic cells (often referred to as adult stem cells) and reprogramming them as pluripotent stem cells.
Pluripotent cells are potentially valuable because they may be able to produce any cell or tissue the body needs to repair itself. This method also bypasses the need to use embryos to generate pluripotent stem cells, so it is consistent with Church teaching on stem cells.
In the past several years, other developments have occurred in the arena of embryonic stem-cell research. In 2013, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University generated embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo. In 2018, scientists in China produced two macaque monkeys, the first cloned non-human primates to be born. Scientists used the same technique that was used to create Dolly the Sheep more than 20 years ago.
Father Pacholczyk said it is increasingly challenging to keep up with rapid developments in stem-cell research. That's why it's important not to lose sight of the dignity of all human life, from its earliest stages until natural death.
"Everyone can sense the continuity of the logic," he said. "If you're already in a society that is destroying older human beings through abortion, how do you convince people to start protecting the younger ones who are still embryos? It seems to be a contradictory stance to a typical observer, and it's only the Church that can offer a unified vision and remind us that all stages of life have to be protected — no exceptions to the rule."
Catechism of the Catholic Church on scientific research and human dignity
"Research or experimentation on the human being cannot legitimate acts that are in themselves contrary to the dignity of persons and to the moral law. The subjects' potential consent does not justify such acts. Experimentation on human beings is not morally legitimate if it exposes the subject's life or physical and psychological integrity to disproportionate or avoidable risks. Experimentation on human beings does not conform to the dignity of the person if it takes place without the informed consent of the subject or those who legitimately speak for him."
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2295
"Reflections on Cloning," Pontifical Academy for Life, 1997
"(Cloning) represents a radical manipulation of the constitutive relationality and complementarity which is at the origin of human procreation in both its biological and strictly personal aspects."
"In the cloning process the basic relationships of the human person are perverted: filiation, consanguinity, kinship, parenthood. A woman can be the twin sister of her mother, lack a biological father and be the daughter of her grandfather. In vitro fertilization has already led to the confusion of parentage, but cloning will mean the radical rupture of these bonds.
"If the human cloning project intends to stop 'before' implantation in the womb, trying to avoid at least some of the consequences we have just indicated, it appears equally unjust from the moral standpoint.
"A prohibition of cloning which would be limited to preventing the birth of a cloned child, but which would still permit the cloning of an embryo-fetus, would involve experimentation on embryos and foetuses and would require their suppression before birth — a cruel, exploitative way of treating human beings.
"In any case, such experimentation is immoral because it involves the arbitrary use of the human body (by now decidedly regarded as a machine composed of parts) as a mere research tool. The human body is an integral part of every individual's dignity and personal identity, and it is not permissible to use women as a source of ova for conducting cloning experiments.
It is immoral because even in the case of a clone, we are in the presence of a 'man,' although in the embryonic stage."
National Catholic Bioethics Center
Established in 1972, the National Catholic Bioethics Center conducts research, consultation, publishing and education to promote human dignity in health care and the life sciences. The center's work follows the teachings of the Catholic Church and delves into a range of bioethical topics, including abortion, contraception, euthanasia, vaccines, stem-cell research, conscience rights and gender identity. Its offices are in Philadelphia. For more information, visit www.ncbcenter.org.
Timeline of developments cloning and embryonic stem-cell research
1981: Scientists discovered how to isolate embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos.
1996: Dolly the sheep was the first cloned mammal. Researchers in Scotland cloned the animal from an adult somatic cell, using a procedure called nuclear transfer. Dolly was euthanized in 2003 because of progressive lung disease and severe arthritis.
1998: Scientists discover how to isolate embryonic stem cells from human embryos.
1999: A rhesus macaque (monkey) was created through a cloning technique called embryo splitting, in which an early-stage macaque embryo is split into multiple parts — in effect, creating artificial identical twins.
2006: Induced pluripotent stem cells emerged when Shinya Yamanaka and others pioneered the technique in Japan using mouse cells. The practice involves taking mature stem cells (sometimes referred to as adult stem cells) and reprogramming them as pluripotent stem cells. The method bypasses the need to use embryos to generate pluripotent stem cells.
2013: Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University generated embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo.
2017: Researchers at the Salk Institute announced they had successfully created a human-animal hybrid, called a chimera. Their work involved creating pigs that included human cells growing within various parts of their bodies.
2018: Researchers in China cloned two macaque monkeys, the first non-human primates cloned using somatic cell nuclear transfer. Scientists used the same technique that was used to create Dolly the Sheep more than 20 years ago.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Stem cells: Unspecialized cells with the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and give rise to specialized cells.
Embryo: In humans, the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation.
Blastocyst: A preimplantation embryo approximately five days old and made up of about 150 cells produced by cell division following fertilization. The blastocyst stage of the embryo is destructively "harvested" to obtain stem cells.
Cloning: To generate identical copies of a region of a DNA molecule or to generate genetically identical copies of a cell, or organism; (n) The identical molecule, cell, or organism that results from the cloning process. When used to create an organism, cloning is referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer, a technique that combines an enucleated egg and the nucleus of a somatic cell to make an embryo. SCNT can be used for therapeutic or reproductive purposes, but the initial process that combines an enucleated egg and a somatic cell nucleus is the same.
Embryonic stem cells: Primitive (undifferentiated) cells derived from a 5-day preimplantation embryo that are capable of dividing without differentiating for a prolonged period in culture, and are also able to develop into cells and tissues of the three primary germ layers.
Somatic (adult) stem cells: A relatively rare undifferentiated cell found in many organs and differentiated tissues with a limited capacity for both self-renewal (in the laboratory) and differentiation. Such cells vary in their differentiation capacity, often being limited to cell types in the organ of origin.
Induced pluripotent stem cells: Somatic (adult) cells reprogrammed to enter an embryonic stem cell–like state by being forced to express factors important for maintaining the "stemness" of embryonic stem cells (ESCs).
Source: National Institutes of Health