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Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 2 - Michaelmas 2005

Moral Dilemmas in Stem Cell Research:
Is Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) A Moral Procedure To Retrieve Embryonic Stem Cells? 

by William Burke, Patrick Pullicino and the Rev. Edward Richard

Introductory Note

The use of human embryos to extract stem cells for treating some diseases rightly raises red flags. It is clear to most of us that using human embryos in this way is fundamentally immoral — “a person’s a person, no matter how small” — and it is never an option to kill one person for the benefit of another person.

But the term “stem cells” is now part of our vocabulary. And governmental funding of experiments to retrieve them has become a political football — as became obvious in the election campaigns last year. Some argued vigorously that government funding of embryonic stem cell research is a basic humanitarian response to those who suffer from as-yet incurable diseases. (The case of the late actor, Christopher Reeve, was frequently cited. One of President Ronald Reagan’s sons used his father’s funeral as an occasion to promote the cause.)

Those who oppose killing tiny humans for research are often dismissed as sentimental, ignorant, or worse. In response, President Bush organized the President’s Council on Bioethics to study the issues and advise the administration.

Although there have been some promising uses of adult stem cells, and none using embryonic stem cells, the pressure to provide government funding for these experiments on human embryos — including embryos produced by a form of cloning — is intense.

Alarming new developments in the cloning field have been in the news recently. Dolly, the cloned sheep, seemed surreal only a few years ago, but this is now distant history. In Great Britain “non-reproductive” (or “therapeutic”) cloning of humans is now legal. A laboratory reported this summer that they can now create an organism that has two mommies and one daddy (said to be useful if one mommy has a genetic defect) — or one that has only a single parent (by parthenogenesis — that is, inducing an egg cell to divide as if it were an embryo).

To say this is mind-boggling is quite literally true. If we try to go beyond the headlines and brief news items in an effort to understand the actual research proposals and their moral implications, our eyes begin to glaze over. Trying to comprehend the processes of manipulating egg cells or altering genetic codes is almost impossible for most of us, and the highly specialized vocabulary seems impenetrable.

Yet, we need to be more than casually interested in the moral dimensions of these research projects. All the proposed research involving embryonic (or embryonic-like) stem cells, including various forms of cloning, have these objectives in common: 1) use of human embryos or human reproductive matter (egg cells) to produce stem cells that may be induced to form a desired kind of tissue, 2) that might be used to treat diseases of human beings.

This brave new biotechnology is the root of the controversy — and the moral dilemma. Enter bioethics and theology with hard questions.

Can cloning human beings — the creation of human persons in a laboratory — ever be justified for any purpose?

Does the end (curing sick people) justify the means (killing human embryos, manipulating human reproduction)?

Is it morally permissible to “harvest” egg cells (oocytes) from women’s bodies, even if the intended good is to treat disease? Doesn’t this make the woman’s body a commodity that can be biologically exploited? An allied question: may a woman benefit financially from offering her eggs for experimentation? What would this mean?

Does the experimental use of human reproductive material (the oocytes) that in its very nature is oriented toward the creation of new human life subvert its fundamental purpose, or “instrumentalize” it?

An overarching question, in light of Catholic moral teaching, is what will be the impact on the essential meaning of human nature itself, and the meaning of human bodiliness?

As theologian David Schindler has observed, “In the end, we can form proper ethical judgments with respect to biotechnological science’s production and manipulation of embryonic stem cells for health-serving ends only insofar as we recover adequate notions of nature and human/organic life (as gift).… Christians who would face the ethical problems posed by contemporary biotechnology, given its radical capacities now to manipulate life in its most fragile beginnings, no longer have the luxury of leaving such ponderings to ‘specialists’”. (“Veritatis Splendor and the Foundations of Bioethics: Notes Towards an Assessment of Altered Nuclear Transfer and Embryonic Stem Cell Research”, Communio 32, Spring 2005).

In June, a group of ethicists issued a statement supporting a new proposal called “oocyte assisted reprogramming” (OAR) and “altered nuclear transfer” (ANT), a variation on “therapeutic cloning” that aims to produce embryonic-like stem cells directly, without the ever creating an actual embryo.

The laudable intention of the proposed research is to avoid the moral problem of destroying human embryos. But this proposal raises serious biotechnical questions bearing directly on moral and ethical problems: what, precisely, is the nature of the biological “entity” that would be created — and how (or whether) this nature can truly be determined. What is going on?

One response to the OAR proposal appears here. Dr. William Burke is professor of neurology at St. Louis University. Dr. Patrick Pullicino is professor of neurology and neurosciences at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School. Father Edward Richard teaches moral theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. (Dr. Burke and Father Richard have been longtime consultants for Women for Faith & Family on medical ethics issues.)

Their paper raises necessary questions about the biotechnical aspects of the OAR proposal that impinge on moral matters.

On August 15, 2005, Women for Faith & Family sent this paper to about sixty experts in bioethics, including key Church officials and all signers of the June statement endorsing OAR/ANT research, and posted it on our web site ( (Related articles can be found on the web site of

We realize that this critique is not easy reading for non-scientists. But in considering and evaluating these stem cell research proposals, we confront the very mystery of human life itself, in its earliest, perhaps even scientifically undetectable, beginnings — and the decisions that result involve consequences that are perilous to ignore.

We agree with David Schindler, that we “no longer have the luxury of leaving such ponderings to specialists”.

— Helen Hull Hitchcock

Go to article: Is Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) A Moral Procedure To Retrieve Embryonic Stem Cells?  -- By William Burke, Patrick Pullicino and the Rev. Edward Richard

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