Saturday, December 30, 2006

Humans it is illegal not to kill.

First posted on Introibo ad altare Dei 7 December 2006.

I am an Anglophile. Or, more correctly, I admire what England used to be. The England I admire - the England of Queen Victoria and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the England that Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding's lads took to the air in Spitfires to defend - no longer exists. Sadly, just as today's United States would be barely recognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill would never know the land of his birth based on her current laws. For example. The Lord Chancellor of England, Lord Falconer, says that if a physician refuses to abide by a patient's "right to die" as expressed in a "living will", he, the physician, can be charged with assault. To quote the article from This is London directly, "An assault prosecution would mean that a doctor who refuses to kill a patient could go to jail."[1] Thus, in England, we now have two groups of human beings whom it is illegal not to kill. The second group is these patients who have a "living will". What constitutes the first group?

Human embryos used in research. Now, there are two basic ways of creating human embryos for research purposes: in vitro fertilization (IVF), and cloning. IVF has now been around for nearly thirty years, and is the major component of a huge and variegated industry generally known as "assisted reproductive technologies". To create an embryo in the petri dish, one first obtains an egg from a woman. How this is done is beyond the scope of this essay. Next, one obtains sperm from a man. In "conventional" fertilization, the egg is simply incubated in a droplet containing sperm. In an alternative method, known as "intracytoplasmic sperm injection," a single sperm is directly injected into the egg using micromanipulation techniques. Regardless of the method used, this is the moment of conception, the moment at which we have a new, genetically distinct, living, human entity which, the Catholic Church teaches, "must be respected and protected absolutely."[2]

The new embryo now begins to grow. From the moment of conception, and for the first thirty hours or so of her life, the zygote, as she is now known, exists as a single cell. She has her own unique, human genetic code, and part of that code is her sex, so I choose to refer to her as a she. Although a quiet little cell to all external appearances, the zygote is quite busy inside. At the beginning of her second day of life, she begins to divide, and soon is a compact little ball of a few dozen cells called a morula. At 5 or 6 days of life, this little ball hollows out, and becomes a blastocyst, consisting of an outer sphere of cells called trophoblasts, which will become the placenta, and an inner mass of cells called the inner cell mass. It is from this inner cell mass that the baby proper will develop.

The second way an embryo can be created is via cloning, formally known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Instead of mixing sperm and an egg, the cloner first removes the nucleus of an unfertilized egg, leaving the cytoplasm of the egg intact. This is important, because the egg's cytoplasm houses all the specialized molecular machinery which unzips the DNA molecule, opening the blueprint, if you will, and gets the entire process of growth, differentiation and development going. Into this empty, annucleate egg the cloner now inserts the nucleus of a somatic cell, that is, a nucleus removed from a fully mature cell and which contains a complete set of genetic material. That nucleus, with it's complete set of chromosomes, is turned on by the egg's machinery, and it's DNA guides the growth of a new, genetically identical copy of the adult from whom the somatic sell was obtained. And, like the IVF embryo, this little embryo also goes through the same stages - zygote, morula, blastocyst, and so on. If placed in the surrogate womb of some animal (artificial wombs being as yet unavailable), she will grow to birth and adulthood. That's how Dolly the sheep was created.

So, now we have created a new human embryo, either by IVF or by cloning. There she is, in her little petri dish, dividing. As we have seen, at around five days, she has developed into two parts, the trophoblasts and the inner cell mass. It is the inner cell mass which is the source of embryonic stem cells, those cells which everyone wants, and they are obtained by destroying the5 or 6 day old embryo, and harvesting the inner cell mass. Interestingly, by day 7 or so, most of the stem cells disappear, as the embryo is now differentiating to the point of having the three embryonic tissue layers, which will give rise to all of our adult organs and tissues. By day 14 the "primitive streak" appears; it is the earliest precursor of the central nervous system. Thus, by day 14 or the appearance of the primitive streak (whichever comes first), the embryo created for research should be destroyed, according to the published guidelines of the National Academy of Sciences[3]. In the U.S. at this point, it is merely a recommendation. In England, this is actually a law, passed in 1990, and known as the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990.[4] It is this law which defined the first class of biological human beings whom it is illegal not to kill: living human embryos created in vitro for research purposes who have reached day 14 of life. The second class whom it illegal not to kill, apparently, will be those with living wills indicating a "right to die". What, one wonders, will be the next class of human beings whom it is illegal not to kill?

[1] "Doctors face prison for denying right to die." This is London, 17 Nov 2006, at Also available, with more details, at Life Site News, White, Hilary "UK Doctors face Jail if they refuse to euthanize patients." 21 Nov 2006,
[2] cf. 2000 years of Church teaching, as summarized in paragraph 2270 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
[3] Recommendation 3 (c), "Research that should not be permitted at this time", reads as follows: "(i) Research involving in vitro culture of any intact human embryo, regardless of derivation method, for longer than 14 days or until formation of the primitive streak begins, whichever comes first." Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, National published by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, National Academies Press, 500 Fifth St., NW Washington, DC. 2005. See page 57.
[4] United Kingdom law, Human Fertilization and Embryology Act 1990. The same Act stipulates that cryopreserved embryos must be destroyed after five years. Cited in Berkman, J. Gestating the Embryos of Others, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (NCBQ) 3(2):309-329, Summer, 2003.

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