Why human "altered nuclear transfer" is unethical: a holistic systems view

The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 5 (2):271-279 (2005)
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A remarkable event occurred at the December 3, 2004, meeting of the U. S. President’s Council on Bioethics. Council member William Hurlbut, a physician and Consulting Professor in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University, formally unveiled a proposal that he claimed would solve the ethical problems surrounding the extraction of stem cells from human embryos. The proposal would involve the creation of genetically defective embryos that “never rise to the level of integrated organismal existence essential to be designated human life with potential,” and therefore could be used as morally acceptable sources of stem cells for research and therapy. The aim of this essay is to show that Hurlbut’s proposal does not solve the ethical problems associated with human embryonic stem cell research. Two major reasons are presented. First, the proposal, which involves modification of a somatic cell nucleus, suffers from an ethical problem that is common to all types of human genetic engineering: since the procedure is not foolproof, there will be failures. In the case of the procedure Hurlbut proposes, some normal (albeit cloned) embryos will be produced. Second, the embryo engineered in the manner described is, at least in the early stages of its development, fully human despite its genetic defect. This essay also will show how a reasonable person might mistakenly view the proposal as legitimate if he or she makes the error of conflating genetic determinism with Aristotelian teleology. Finally, it will argue that ethical clarity can be achieved by seeing the embryo as a holistic entity possessing emergent properties that cannot simply be spelled out by genes.

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W. Malcolm Byrnes
Howard University


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