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As we are still basking in the afterglow of this year’s holiday season, perhaps we can indulge in a moment of speculation (it’s never too soon!) about what to do with holiday gift money. What about investing it in a company working with parthenogenesis?
In the past, the versatile “pluripotent” stem cells, which can form into more than one cell type, have been obtained in two ways: from fertilized eggs and from “adult” stem cells. Neither method is perfect.
Although embryonic stem cells are currently the most effective for medical research, some Americans have concerns about their use. They claim the process is tantamount to ending a human life.
Adult stem cells, because they are drawn from fully formed, adult cells (skin, for example), avoid the moral objections, but the scientific methods are more complex and lag behind the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells.
Parthenogenesis, which is reproduction without fertilization, just might overcome these problems.
Scientists have discovered a way to create pluripotent cells from an unfertilized egg. This, potentially, offers the benefits of embryonic stem cells without the moral hazard because there is no viable fetus is involved.
Instead of 23 chromosomes from an egg and 23 from a sperm, scientists induce the egg to duplicate its own 23 chromosomes. This creates an “embryo” with the full complement of 46 chromosomes; however, based on current technology, it is not considered practical or possible to produce a potentially viable human from parthenogenesis.
Do you remember the South Korean Scientist who fabricated claims he had successfully drawn stem cells from clones? He was discredited, disgraced, and dismissed from his position, but scientists have recently determined that he had actually unwittingly succeeded in inducing human parthenogenesis! That was 2004.
So, we might ask a few questions. For one, does this really sidestep the concern of many Americans over the sanctity of human life? Well, maybe. Certainly, for some it will.
If the issue of human origins depends, for you, on at what point the fertilized egg becomes a human life, then parthenogenesis solves the problem. It is no longer a question of blastocysts and fetuses. There is no sperm, no fertilization, no human potential.
If, however, the potential for life, for you, rests separately and equally in each egg and each sperm, then parthenogenesis does not move back far enough. It still requires a viable egg. This position, although not without some reason, is more difficult to defend.
According to this position, we might claim that every woman allows human potential to “die” with each menstruation. Yet we could hardly expect women to become pregnant (or even try to) with every single menstrual cycle.
Still, we might make distinctions among the various ways human eggs can be used.
For example, if the fundamental distinction is based on a notion of fidelity of “nature’s plan,” some could use this distinction to argue that human eggs should only be used for procreative purposes. Therefore, parthenogenesis, whether it is used for skin creams or for regenerative therapies in the fight against kidney and other organ diseases, is wrong. It uses eggs for therapy on existing lives, not for the creation of new ones. But, in vitro fertilization, for example, would be acceptable.
We might argue that any use that offers a benefit to human life is acceptable. In this case, parthenogenesis would be acceptably applied to the development of new therapies. We can imagine non-essential applications at which we might draw a line.
On a final note, there is another benefit claimed by the proponents of parthenogenesis. Because it only involves passing on one set of genetic information, it has the potential to offer “universal” stem cells donors. Thus, it could offer a benefit not currently available in traditional embryonic or adult stem cell therapies.
Tate Hurvitz is project director for the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and Assistant Professor of English at Grossmont College. Does this tip the scales for you? Does it raise new questions? For more information and a chance to share your perspective with leaders in the field, come to the next Exploring Ethics event at the Fleet Science Center on January 5 at 5:30 p.m. It’s free.