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Biotechnology: The Good, The Bad, and What We Should Fear Most

JACKSON, Tenn.July 30, 2001 – When prospective parents in 2010 begin talking about colors, they won’t be limited to pink and blue. They’ll discuss blue, brown, and green as they decide the color they want their child’s eyes to be. When a construction worker comes into a local hospital with a seriously injured leg, he avoids amputation and leaves three days later. His leg is whole and functioning normally, thanks to a procedure that has regenerated the cell tissue from his injured leg – in effect, healing itself.

According to Dr. James Huggins, biology professor and chair at Union University, the frontier of biotechnology is upon us.

“There are so many things out there that are being discovered, and we’re absorbing all of this new information very quickly,” says Huggins. “Bio-colonization is taking place. The big question, though, is how we will choose to use this new knowledge.”

After all, this new knowledge is not inherently bad, says Huggins. Who would have thought we would now have the option of never wearing glasses or contact lenses again? But now thanks to Lasik, a new surgery which uses a laser as the tool that corrects the eye’s cornea, many of us have that choice and are seeing quite well, glasses-free. Lasers have also made it possible and easier for doctors to destroy tumors and growths with less invasive measures than were once used.

Heart and other organ transplants have continued to succeed with new improvements in technology enabling patients to lead normal and longer lives. The first man to receive a completely self-contained artificial heart lies in his hospital room as doctors monitor his progress. Entirely replacing his diseased and decaying one, this new mechanical heart – which weighs approximately two pounds – operates via a battery pack, so no wires, tubes or other connections to a machine have to travel through the skin. This greatly decreases the risk of infection, and in turn, increases the odds of survival, though this device is still in the experimental stage. Four more critically ill patients are scheduled to receive the new heart apparatus within the coming months.

But with the introduction of these new technological advances, what does this mean for our society? Dr. Hal Poe, professor of faith and culture at Union and co-author of Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialogue, says that the potential for harm is great.

“Now that the human genome sequence has been solved for the most part – without even thinking of the theological or ethical questions, just from a scientific point of view, we have no idea what we’ve unleashed,” says Poe. “It’s like when the kudzu plant was first introduced in the United States to stop erosion. We didn’t know what we had introduced – and now it’s everywhere.”

Like the kudzu, medical advances within the reproductive technology field have certainly seen explosive development in the past five to ten years. While specific advances have been helpful to parents wanting children – such as in-vitro fertilization, now a common procedure – more advanced processes in medical research are currently raising ethical questions and creating moral dilemmas for society. Fetal stem cell research and designer babies are just a couple of the issues being debated and will continue to be argued among scientists, lawmakers, and clergy alike.

What Will Happen to the Children?

Throughout the world, embryo banks are holding thousands and thousands of embryos – fertilized eggs that have not been implanted into a womb. Due to the low rate of success with in vitro procedures, it has become a standard practice for doctors to create several embryo at once – anywhere from four to twelve – with just a few inserted at one time, hoping that at least one will become a successful pregnancy. If a pregnancy takes place and the parents do not wish for more children, that the question is raised – what happens to the remaining embryos? In England, the law requires that frozen embryos must be destroyed after a period of five years, a process that simply requires the embryos to be lifted from the freezer and allowed to disintegrate. In the United States, there is no law regulating how long frozen embryos are allowed to sit, even though there is still a question of how long embryos can stay frozen without being damaged.

While many see these “leftovers” as potential babies and human life, there are others that see only vessels of information – stem cells that may possibly hold the key to the cure of debilitating genetic diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

“Any respectable biologist will tell you that life begins at conception,” says Huggins, who believes that destroying an embryo is just the same as aborting a fetus. “We put these potential lives in suspended animation, sitting on a shelf, waiting for someone to decide whether they want another child or not. Not everyone believes that these embryos have souls, but there are definitely major metabolic processes occurring – we’ve got life there.”

The major argument centers on the stem cell, which in 1998 was discovered to show tremendous potential for healing human diseases and illnesses. Embryonic stem cells in the first few days of life do not have a designation of particular uses by the body’s couple of hundred types of tissue. According to Huggins, there are four stages for stem cells – primordial, totipotent, pluripotent and multipotent. With each stage, as the embryo continues its development, cell potential gradually lessens. The stage with the most potential seems to be the “totipotent” stem cells, found early on within the embryo that may one day be used to create healthy tissue anywhere in the body.

Scientists, in both private and public sectors, want to do research using these stem cells in order to develop vaccines and cures for genetic diseases. The proponents of the research say extra embryos that are already tagged for destruction should be given to research.

“I disagree with the notion that since these frozen embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, they should be handed over to scientists for their experiments,” says C. Ben Mitchell, a member of the bioethics and contemporary culture faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Trinity International University. “That’s like saying that prisoners on death row are going to die anyway, so let’s go ahead and kill them right now, so we can save more lives as a result. There is no biological difference with the embryo in cold storage and the embryo in the womb.”

Mitchell, who also serves as bioethics consultant for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says that one of the best things to do with these embryos is to allow adoption – a concept he is willing to bet that many parents thinking about adopting are not even aware of.

“It’s unclear whether most couples are told that embryo adoption is an alternative when they begin the adoption process,” explains Mitchell, who believes that this method is the best option for these extra embryos. “Since it’s the couple who will make the ultimate decision, they should be given all of the alternatives. And since it’s their goal to start a family anyway, it would seem to me that embryo adoption would be very appealing.”

One organization offering embryo adoption is Snowflakes, a program offered by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, and one of the first of its kind in the country. According to their website (www.snowflakes.org), more than 100,000 frozen embryos – pre-born children – are waiting in cryo-banks. Though the legal framework for embryo adoption has not yet been established in most states, this type of adoption is quite similar to traditional adoption with regard to the steps taken through the adoption process.

Huggins and Mitchell both agree that there are other ways to conduct research instead of using fetal stem cells.

“Adult stem cells have great potential for healing of disease but it needs to be explored further,” says Huggins. “What is it that your body does to change cells from baby to adult? We can unlock these doors if we expand our efforts to learn how to harvest these cells from adults.”

According to Mitchell, researchers have found that embryonic stem cells were actually very unstable and caused more problems than their effort to transplant. The studies Mitchell has consulted show that more than 97% of animals who have been cloned have already died.

“Funding is really the key,” adds Mitchell. “There's only a certain amount of discretionary money for research in general, and every bit you siphon off to do morally questionable research as with fetal stem cells – that’s money that you can't use for research with a moral basis, such as studying the potential of adult stem cells.”

It is the question and judgement for funding that Mitchell says is going to come down to what President Bush ultimately decides.

“What's the president going to do? Federal funding will depend on it. I'm hopeful he will follow his campaign promise – to oppose any embryonic research,” says Mitchell. “If he will hold his line on this, then we won't fund [the fetal stem cell research]. If he doesn't, he'll lose moral credibility.”

Human Cloning – Pandora’s Box and the Tower of Babel Rolled Into One?

First, the announcement came that scientists at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Virginia, with the help of genetic material bought from paid donors, had created embryos specifically to be destroyed for research. The following day, an article in The Washington Post announced that scientists affiliated with the company Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., have begun “a series of experiments aimed at creating cloned human embryos or embryo-like entities from which embryonic stem cells could be derived.”

“When we opened the moral floodgate to permit human embryonic stem cell experimentation, we let in a host of moral evils,” explains Mitchell. Now that embryos are being created for the purposes of research, Mitchell says it is not surprising that for “quality control” purposes, scientists are insisting that these embryos be cloned to ensure duplicity.

“Next, of course, we will be informed that in order to learn more about human development, we need to bring a human clone to term. Once the utilitarian calculus is operative, there is no turning back,” asserts Mitchell, who compares this latest endeavor with what German scientists were saying during the Holocaust, when more than six million Jews were killed. “Their argument was identical to that of the ethics committee in Virginia – ‘it is our duty to provide the greatest benefits for humankind’ – only the German doctors had a very narrow definition of humankind,” says Mitchell.

The idea of cloning human beings has long been used as subject matter for horror and science fiction movies – images portraying mad scientists in dark dungeon labs, creating Frankenstein. Yet, the reality is that cloning has been around longer than the majority of people might expect.

Dr. Wayne Wofford, director of the Edward P. Hammons Center for Scientific Studies and professor of biology at Union, says that when many people today think of cloning, they think of Dolly the sheep. Dolly made headlines in 1997 as the first cloned animal. However, according to the professor, a frog was actually the first creature to be cloned, back in the late seventies.

“What’s generally not known is that these frogs, tadpoles actually, did not fully develop. They did not make the transition from a tadpole to an adult frog,” says Wofford, adding that Dolly’s creators tried more than 270 times before the experiment was successful, with Dolly as the result.

There are three types of cloning: vegetative propagation, embryonic cloning and adult cloning. The first is done routinely, says Wofford, any time someone takes a branch from a bush and roots it.

Embryonic cloning has also started to become common, though many people are unaware of it. Doctors take a fertilized egg that has developed up to the eight-cell stage, which is totipotent – each cell capable of producing an intact adult. If the egg is broken apart and each of the eight cells is allowed to divide, the individual cells each are capable of developing into an adult. Some of the cells are then implanted into the mother, with the others possibly being frozen for implantation at a later time.

Adult cloning, says Wofford, involves taking an egg and removing the nucleus from it, a procedure that he adds does not always work every time. “If you punch a hole in a cell, you really damage most of them,” explains Wofford.

Once that is completed, the nucleus from an adult cell is removed, tricked into reverting a little, and then placed into the egg that’s missing its nucleus, thus providing an environment that will encourage development for the adult cell’s nucleus. The egg is then transferred to a surrogate mother where it will potentially be born as a healthy baby.

“Now since that nucleus came from the adult, it’s going to be genetically identical to the adult as it develops,” says Wofford, “and that’s the true clone, where the offspring are genetically identical to the adult.”

While many picture clones as identical versions of ourselves, Wofford says it’s not quite that simple.

“The different microenvironments within the uterus may influence development slightly – it’s not going to be the same mother, the same physiological state or even the same age that’s carrying the embryo. That also may influence development somewhat.”

The Ethical and Moral Implications of the Biotech Frontier

As more and more private and public bio-tech firms and research labs seek to develop further research on human cloning, genetic manipulation and stem cell therapies, the potential outcomes are dangerously close to becoming operational. According to the experts, the possibilities could be endless, including choosing your child’s sex, height, coloring, even his or her I.Q. Some even argue that disease could become obsolete, and with the cloning of humans, “replacement parts,” could create, in essence, the fountain of youth.

“With these new biotechnologies being developed, who controls the power over them?” questions Dr. Greg Thornbury, director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership and assistant professor of Christian studies at Union University. “How will they be used and how will they be distributed? And these technologies will be developed – it’s not a question of “if” but when, and who will have control over them.”

Already, one cult group has promised to be the first to clone a human within the next year – and if their claim is unsuccessful, there are at least four other organizations right behind them, making the same assertion.

“Pure curiosity is what drives a lot of this,” says Dr. David Gushee, Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and a senior fellow for the center. “Can it be done? That is so much of what drives science – just the desire to see if you can do something. While God is ultimately the author of the human mind’s ability to unlock these mysteries, it’s in our hands to decide whether to ever make use of the knowledge that we gain.”

Gushee points to a period of time in world history when man developed a technology that was ultimately determined to be too dangerous for routine use – nuclear weapons.

“We developed these atomic weapons, used them at the end of World War II and were horrified by it. Though we went ahead and built all these weapons, we repeatedly refrained from using them since 1945, and though it’s a rare example – having only been 55 years – it shows we can have the ability to do something but choose not to do it. I guess I hope that will be the outcome here,” says Gushee.

“We’ve instilled the phrase ‘to go where no one has gone before’ as an inherent virtue into our culture,” adds Thornbury. “We think that all knowledge is good, and that everything which can be known should be known, and should be exposed. And to that, the Christian says ‘false.’”

Union science professors also point to the tremendous ethical implications that human cloning and this quest to uncover advanced technologies presents.

“Let’s say a human is cloned – what rights does this individual have? Is he his own person or does he belong to the cell donor? Or the person who manufactured him?” says Wofford, who points out there is an ownership issue that will have to be decided. In fact, according to the experts, scientists have gone so far as to propose the possibility of creating headless humans, manufacturing them strictly for the use of replacement body parts.

“They’ve found a gene in vertebrates, which was first found in frogs, that can create a headless embryo – now they think the gene exists in all vertebrates, which generates the remote possibility that you could create a headless human, which could be grown up on a machine, specifically for the use of extra parts, organs or otherwise,” says Wofford, who admits how far-fetched it sounds, but says the research is still being conducted.

Something else that must be considered, adds Wofford, is that so far, there are currently numerous abnormalities that are occurring and are associated with the ongoing cloning experiments.

“In dealing with cloning of animals, there is a very high rate of abnormalities,” explains Wofford. “In terms of medical ethics, if we had a procedure for repairing damage to the heart valve but it only worked half a percent of the time or less, it wouldn’t be allowed. But this is the kind of success rate that we have in animals, and there’s no reason to assume it’s going to be any better in humans.”

With the advances in reproductive technology now allowing parents to choose the sex of their child, genetic manipulation opens the doors to an overwhelming number of different possibilities. According to Huggins, there is potential for the creation of a worldwide caste system – the “haves” and the “have-nots” of families who have paid for their children to be the smartest, most beautiful and most successful and families who can’t afford those options.

“These advances hold enormous Christian implications,” says Huggins, adding that more Christians need to make it a priority to know what is taking place. “Our world view could be drastically changed by this, our economy and even the world economy could be drastically changed, especially through the combination of genetic engineering and cloning.”

“The gravest danger here is the objectification of human beings for other uses,” acknowledges Gushee. “A child is an end in itself – a gift from God to be cherished for the very fact of its existence. There’s a great danger when we look at reproduction as something that we buy or sell to accomplish other objectives in life.”

Though countries all over the world, including 19 European nations, have banned human cloning, the United States has yet to do so, and rules have yet to be put into place regulating stem cell and genetic research as well. Currently, bills are before both houses of Congress proposing the banning of human cloning but permitting fetal stem cell research to be conducted with “leftover” embryos obtained from infertility clinics.

“We have lost the sense of awe for the mystery of life and the sense of holy fear,” Gushee observes. “There is sacredness associated with life that is not to be trifled with. So the fact that we are at least hesitating on the brink of some of these things and asking the questions at the national level, means that the sense of awe and holy fear have not been entirely lost.

“We are at a pivotal point where we will see what kind of people we really are.”

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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