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Research on human embryos in an artificial womb? Why recent experiments have ethicists concerned

March 25, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Washington D.C., Mar 25, 2021 / 11:10 am (CNA).- After scientists successfully grew mouse embryos in an artificial uterus, ethicists are warning against any future extension of the experiments to human embryos.

Scientists working at an Israeli research institution recently sustained mouse embryos in an artificial uterus for 12 days. The experiment’s lead researcher suggested that human embryos should eventually be studied in an artificial womb, as late as 40 days post-fertilization.

“I think the greatest concern is that it [the research] doesn’t stop with mice,” said Dr. David Prentice, adjunct professor of molecular genetics at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., in an interview with EWTN Pro-Life Weekly that will air on Thursday. Prentice is also vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life research group.

On March 17, scientists reported that they had taken fertilized eggs of mice and grew mouse embryos in an artificial uterus for 11 to 12 days – longer than had ever been recorded.

Dr. Jacob Hanna, working at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, led the research team for the embryo experiments. He wrote that his experiments could help fellow scientists study the development of mammals – and possibly understand more clearly how miscarriages and gene mutations can occur, the New York Times reported on March 17.

Hanna also hoped the research could extend to human embryos in the future.

He said that “I hope that it will allow scientists to grow human embryos until week five,” as reported in the MIT Technology Review. Hanna added that he is pushing for research labs to study human embryos, growing them in an artificial womb for 40 days before disposing of them.

“I do understand the difficulties. I understand. You are entering the domain of abortions,” Hanna said, the MIT Technology Review reported. “So I would advocate growing it [the human embryo] until day 40 and then disposing of it.”

The hypothetical practice could replace the fetal tissue research market, he said.

“Instead of getting tissue from abortions, let’s take a blastocyst and grow it,” he said.

In response, a Catholic ethicist told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly that the Church opposes experimentation on human embryos except for direct, therapeutic, non-harmful treatments for the embryos themselves.

“The Church has already spoken to this issue,” said Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on EWTN Pro-Life Weekly. He cited the Vatican’s 1987 document Donum Vitae, “Instruction on respect for human life.”

In the document, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) taught that only direct therapeutic experiments are licit on human embryos, he said, adding that “nothing that would put their lives in danger could be acceptable.”

The experimentation cannot be conducted even if its motives are laudable, he said. “It’s a very good idea to look into the causes of miscarriage,” he said, adding that such research should be conducted through ethical experiments on animals and not on human embryos.

The sustaining of human embryos outside the womb for research is not licit, he explained, especially when they are discarded after a period of time.

“Procreation is all about respecting the dignity of the human person. And creating an artificial womb where the child is completely disassociated from the mother for nine months, or even just a few weeks,” he said, “all of that is completely contrary to the dignity of the human person.”

“And so these kind of experiments where they will actually be killing human beings are never something that can be done,” he said.

The Church sets ethical restrictions on research out of respect for the human person and not out of animosity toward science, he said.

“The Church is very pro-science,” he emphasized. “We always put the human person at the center of science, not to be experimented upon, but to be actually helped.”

In Donum Vitae, the Vatican CDF stated “[t]he human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his existence.”

“Medical research must refrain from operations on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have given their free and informed consent to the procedure,” the document said of direct therapeutic treatment.

“If the embryos are living, whether viable or not, they must be respected just like any other human person; experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit,” the Vatican said.

“No objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or foetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother’s womb.”


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Catholic bishop speaks out after mother loses appeal over life support for 5-year-old girl

March 23, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

CNA Staff, Mar 23, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).- A Catholic bishop has lamented an English appeal court ruling that life-sustaining treatment can be withdrawn from a five-year-old girl against her mother’s wishes.

The Court of Appeal upheld a High Court ruling March 19 concerning Pippa Knight, who is in a vegetative state after suffering brain damage.

Bishop John Sherrington said: “Pippa is living in a seriously disabled way due to her complex and rare medical condition. The Catholic Church teaches that every person has worth and dignity which is independent of their condition. Lack of awareness does not diminish worth.”

“The ruling to allow medics to cease Pippa’s treatment based on her quality of life or worth does not acknowledge or afford her the inherent human dignity with which she was born.”

Sherrington, a Westminster diocese auxiliary bishop and the English and Welsh bishops’ spokesman for life issues, said that he was praying for the girl’s mother, Paula Parfitt, as well as the healthcare professionals caring for her.

“We must uncompromisingly ensure that proper care is given where there is still life, despite serious illness or disability,” he commented.

“We are reminded that such care must include the provision of nutrition and hydration, by whatever means, which is neither treatment nor medicine, unless this itself becomes overly burdensome.”

Pippa was born in 2015. In December 2016, she fell ill and began experiencing seizures. Doctors diagnosed her as suffering from acute necrotizing encephalopathy, a rare form of brain damage marked by multiple bilateral lesions.

After specialists at Evelina London Children’s Hospital said they wished to end life-support treatment, the case went to the High Court, which issued its ruling on Jan. 8.

In a Feb. 4 statement, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England, described the ethical reasoning behind the High Court decision as “deeply flawed.”

In a detailed analysis of the judgment, the center’s director David Albert Jones said that the case had similarities with those of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, in which ventilation was withdrawn against their parents’ wishes.

He said that withdrawing life-sustaining treatment could be justified if it no longer serves its purpose or is “excessively burdensome.”

“On the other hand, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment when treatment would have been beneficial and not unduly burdensome is nothing less than abandonment,” he wrote.

“Furthermore, even if withdrawal of treatment is justifiable, it is important that the decision is made for the right reasons. In the case of Pippa Knight, as in the two former cases, the ethical reasoning is deeply flawed.”

In February, Pippa’s mother asked appeal judges to overturn the ruling, arguing that her daughter should be allowed to leave the hospital and be treated at home on a portable ventilator.

Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Baker said in a written ruling: “I am entirely satisfied that the judge was entitled to conclude and declare that it was lawful and in Pippa’s best interests that life-sustaining treatment be withdrawn for the reasons he gave in his judgment.”

The two other judges who heard the appeal — Lady Justice King and Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing — expressed their agreement.

Parfitt, who is supported by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), expressed her dismay at the appeal court’s verdict.

“I am once again devastated as a result of the judgment of the Court of Appeal today, to uphold the decision that it is not in Pippa’s best interests to have a two-week trial of portable ventilation to find out whether she could come home,” she said.

“I find it inexplicable that the court and [hospital] trust will not allow Pippa to trial portable ventilation for two weeks to see if she can return home when the hospital allows Pippa to go outside for long periods on portable ventilation with no issue.”

She continued: “I will be seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. I want Pippa to have every possible chance to come home and be with her family.”

Concluding his March 19 statement, Sherrington said: “The intentional ending of the life of a critically ill patient because of a judgment made of its quality is never in the patient’s best interests. At the heart of humanity must be a call to show love and solidarity with the most vulnerable in society, and to defend the lives of our more fragile brothers and sisters who are unable to do so themselves.”

“My heartfelt prayers are with little Pippa and her mother Paula during this difficult time of suffering, as well as with those caring for Pippa. I hope that everything possible will now be done to accompany and support Pippa and her family following today’s ruling.”


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Human embryo, or a model? Resist ‘depersonalizing’ research, ethicist cautions

March 18, 2021 CNA Daily News 1

Denver Newsroom, Mar 18, 2021 / 05:04 pm (CNA).- New “models” of early human embryos that cannot grow into full human beings provoke ethical questions about whether they are human beings. One ethicist warns that research should be halted out of caution until more is known, because of the ethical dangers and temptations in the experiments.

“Scientists face the perennial temptation to depersonalize early human life, and to treat embryos as objects. Human beings are so sacred, that we must particularly reverence them in their origins, in the way they come into the world,” Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a National Catholic Bioethics Center staff ethicist with a background in medical research, told CNA March 18.
“Researchers should err on the side of caution, because it remains always and everywhere wrong to create young human beings in petri dishes or laboratory glassware,” he said. “Doing so indicates a disordered eagerness to manipulate early human life and a willingness to exploit our own human offspring at the earliest stages of their existence.”
Two different research teams have created human embryo-like entities by creating hollow balls of cells that resemble blastocysts, called blastoids. The blastocyst stage is normally about five to six days after conception, at which time the developing embryo has rapidly dividing cells, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“The recently-reported human blastoids are pieced together out of stem cells, and at this point, they appear to be very embryo-like, though the jury is still out on whether they could ever be fully functional or complete human embryos,” Pacholczyk said.
The models are different enough from naturally conceived embryos that they will never become a viable fetus or baby, but they are very close to functioning like the early stages of a human being, National Public Radio reports.
The research could contribute to understanding how a single cell grows into a fully formed human being, and could help develop treatment for genetic diseases and prevent birth defects, miscarriages, or infertility problems.
The exact nature and ethical status of the models themselves is unclear, some observers said.
Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University, told NPR she was concerned about “growing these sort-of humans in a test tube and not even considering the fact that they are so close to being human.”
Pacholczyk was similarly concerned.
“One of the ethical questions around such experiments is whether researchers may actually be making a handicapped, but genuine, human embryo, a young human that is doomed to death as he or she grows because of various defects in the way they were originally constituted by researchers,” he said, comparing the experiments to creating a child with a serious defect that kills them at a young age.

“If it were true that researchers are producing ‘disabled’ human embryos, entities that genuinely partake of our human form and essence, this would involve serious moral objections.”
“Because we don’t know yet whether we are creating crippled embryos in this way, we should be careful, and not perform these experiments using human cells,” he said. “Rather they should be done exclusively in animals, including non-human primates, to help us figure out, with reasonable certainty, whether any human entities we might later make would be human creatures or not.”
Jun Wu, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, led one research team’s experimental model development, while Jose Polo, a developmental biologist at Monash University in Australia, led a different team.
Polo’s team created blastoid models from adult skin cells, while Wu’s team created models using a combination of induced-pluripotent stem cells from adult human cells and human embryonic stem cells. The use of human embryonic stem cells has drawn ethical scrutiny from critics, including Catholic critics, because the cells are derived from the destruction of human embryos.
Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University, told National Public Radio that the models are so close to being a human embryo that they raise “a very interesting question of, at what point does an embryo model become a real embryo.”
“This work is absolutely unnerving for many people because it really challenges our tidy categories of what life is and when life begins,” Hyun continued. “This is what I call the biological-metaphysical time machine.”
In Pacholczyk’s view, the experiments described extend a mindset accepting of in vitro fertilization. The Catholic Church has long said this “is never acceptable as a way to engender new human life.”

“Regrettably, developmental biologists, such as Jacob Hanna at the Weizmann Institute of Science, are rationalizing precisely this kind of embryo experimentation by saying that researchers have already been destructively studying early embryos from IVF clinics for so long that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with it,” the ethicist added.
“He is advocating a very disturbing idea, namely, that of growing embryos and/or embryo-like entities ‘until day 40 and then disposing of it’,” said Pacholczyk. “He proposes, ‘Instead of getting tissues from abortions, let’s take a blastocyst and grow it.’

Hyun, one of the embryo model researchers, agrees on the need for clear ethical guidelines. However, he supports revisions to an international guideline that allows embryonic human experimentation on embryos up to 14 days old. He wants more exceptions “case by case in an incremental fashion,” he told NPR.
There is “growing pressure” to eliminate the 14-day rule in order to grow embryos for longer periods, Pacholczyk told CNA.

“Those who originally set up the 14-day rule devised a clever stratagem to offer lip service to the moral status of the human embryo, while enabling serious human rights violations to proceed apace in the world of embryology,” he said. “The 14-day rule objectively demonstrates no more respect for vulnerable humanity than would a declaration by the National Institutes of Health that researchers will now be permitted to do lethal experimental research on newborns up to the age of 14 months. Whether 14-days, 14-months, or anywhere in between, such ‘rules’ remain contrivances to justify the most unethical kinds of science and to allow for the exploitation of our own vulnerable human offspring.”
The U.S. National Institutes of Health funds work on human embryo-like structures but must follow a federal provision called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bars government funding for research that creates or destroys human embryos.
Some researchers are pushing for this amendment to be changed, including some who aim to create synthetic human embryos, Nature reported in January 2020.

Catholic authorities have consistently rejected destructive human embryo research. In May 2017, Pope Francis told a gathering of Huntington’s disease patients and their families, “we know that no ends, even noble in themselves, such as a predicted utility for science, for other human beings or for society, can justify the destruction of human embryos.”
The October 2020 issue of Ethics & Medics, a commentary published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, also discusses the ethics of embryo models in an article by Kevin Wilger, a research engineer.