Two recent bioethics announcements have added a few more nails to the coffin of humanity. While these new biomedical breakthroughs promise much about medical research, cures, and progress, what they are really about is the end of man – both as the male gender, and as humanity. The two recent reports both have to do with the use of embryonic stem cells.
The first news item has to do with a call for Australian women to be allowed to sell their eggs for medical research. One news account says this: “Women could make money by selling their eggs for stem cell research under a proposal by one of the pioneers of Australia’s stem cell regulations. Under present laws it is illegal for women to be paid to donate their eggs to medical research, but the University of Melbourne’s Professor Loane Skene says the regulations need to be overturned to find new cures.”
We have of course heard this for some decades now: let’s kill human embryos at an early stage in the hopes of finding some medical cures for other people. It is a convoluted logic and ethic: let’s kill some human beings in the hopes of possibly saving other human beings.
But it is old news in another sense. Scientific breakthroughs involving pluripotent adult stem cells have really resulted in embryonic stem cell therapy becoming redundant. Indeed, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are now where all the action is, and the need for using embryos is now passé.
Moreover, the process of retrieving eggs is an invasive procedure which puts the health of women at risk. To put pressure on women to undergo such risky procedures simply to earn a few quid is irresponsible medicine.
Indeed, the whole idea of selling body parts is grotesque. In tough economic times such as the present, the temptation to make some money on the side by selling eggs or other body parts will lead to the exploitation of many women, especially the poor. This is clearly unethical medicine.
The other story involves the creation of human sperm. This is how one news report covered the story: “Scientists claim to have created human sperm for the first time, in a breakthrough they say could lead to new treatment for male infertility. The sperm was said to have been grown in a laboratory in Newcastle, England, from human embryonic stem cells. Led by Professor Karim Nayernia, researchers developed a method of growing early-stage sperm from the stem cells by using retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, and found that about 20 per cent of the cells produced sperm. The breakthrough came when some cells continued to grow, elongating and growing a tail that caused them to move, and forming recognisable sperm cells.”
A number of problems come to mind, including the obvious: if scientists can now manufacture sperm, that simply makes males even more redundant than they already are. The social result is similar to what we get with parthenogenesis, or procreation by one sex alone. This might be good for amoebas, but it is not good for human beings, and certainly not good for the children who come about by such a process. Children need fathers, not just sperm manufacturers and donors.
And we again have the same problem concerning ethical research. The use of embryonic stem cells is predicated on the prior destruction of the embryo. If we really need to create sperm, this too can be done by means of adult stem cells. Once again we are creating life only to destroy, in some vague hope of potentially helping other human beings one day.
One commentator has expressed these concerns: “Although this sperm has not been used to fertilise a human egg, the nightmare is simply that we now stand on the brink of a new era, in which the whole business of bearing children has nothing to do with a biological mother and father. For example, the cells of a lesbian could be used to create sperm with which to fertilise her partner’s egg. In an even more extreme scenario, a woman could, in theory, one day be both mother and father to her own child. The possibilities are mind-boggling.”
And the risks are high: “Moreover, the health risks are enormous. Although live baby mice were produced using the artificially created ‘sperm’, the unfortunate offspring were far from healthy, suffering from various growth and respiratory problems. These caveats notwithstanding, there is no denying that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and we must now ask ourselves where this technology could one day take us.”
As is so often the case, biotechnologies are far outpacing the necessary ethical and social reflection needed with these new technologies. Just because we can do something does not mean that we should do something. Pushing full speed ahead in these areas without proper reflection and community consultation is a very dangerous path to be on.
The brave new world of biotechnology has certainly been a mixed blessing. Some good may have been achieved, but always the downsides are significant. And the biggest of these downsides is the dehumanisation and depersonalisation that seems to inevitably result from much of these technologies.
While playing God is a recurring temptation, it is important to bear in mind that probably only God is best qualified to do so.