May 2006. "Slippery slope" arguments in bioethics are fairly popular, reminding us how initial ethical violations have a way of leading to further violations and misdeeds, and ultimately, to undesirable places. Once you "give away the principle" and start sliding, it becomes difficult to return to the point from which you started. What is genuinely striking is how far down the biotechnology slopes we have already come. In the 1960's, contraception, or sex without babies, became widely accepted. By 1978, the flip side, babies without sex, arrived on the scene with in vitro fertilization. Human embryos were created in the laboratory and implanted into women. Soon this snowballed into the storage of "spare" embryos in the deep freeze, to the point of nearly a half-million humans "trapped" just in the United States (and still more being produced and frozen each hour, like an assembly line, at fertility clinics around the country). The destruction of innocent human life in the womb also became commonplace after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In the late 1980's researchers began using tissues derived from abortions to try to treat Parkinson's patients, with minimal public outcry or reaction, so that today abortion clinics have few qualms about providing freshly obtained "research material" to scientists at large universities or biotech companies. In 1998, the next step was to sacrifice some of the previously frozen human embryos to procure their embryonic stem cells. Right on the heels of this development came an even more troubling proposal: making human embryos by cloning, matching them to sick patients, then destroying those embryos to get their stem cells. Because those embryos would be clones, or identical twins of the patient, the stem cells could be implanted into the patient with minimal danger of rejection, since identical twins can exchange organs between each other without immune problems. Thus, in the short space of a few years, we have arrived at the point of creating human life merely to destroy it, harvesting it as little more than raw material, a commodity, for exploitation. The confluence of these various ethical violations points to the next twist down the slippery and well-greased slopes of modern biotechnology. Although perhaps ominous sounding today, the prospect of fetal farming looms large, and may likewise become routine in our future if we continue to acquiesce to the coarsening of our moral sensitivities around these important bioethical questions.
Fetal farming is a method to obtain whole organs or other complex tissues. Currently, researchers speak about stem cells as the ideal, flexible cells that will let us make tissues, organs and body parts in the future. The difficulty is that we really don't have a clue how to make whole organs out of stem cells. Whole organs, like a kidney or a heart, are exceedingly complex structures with many different interacting cell types. There are numerous unknown steps along the pathway of making, say, a kidney from a stem cell. Years, or even decades, of research must first be carried out before whole organs ready for human transplant will become widely available. But a convenient shortcut may be possible. Instead of destroying a cloned, 5-day-old human embryo to get his or her stem cells, why not simply implant that embryo, allow him or her to grow into a fetus, and schedule an abortion a little while before the baby's due date? Then mother nature will already have done all the hard work of making two kidneys, ready to be harvested from the aborted child, thereby saving a good deal of time and trouble in terms of scientific research. These kinds of "fetal farming" experiments have already been done in mice and in cattle, and they provide usable tissues and organs. Scientists at a biotechnology company called Advanced Cell Technologies in Worcester, Massachusetts have published papers where, in one instance, stem cells were obtained by implanting the cloned mouse embryo and gestating it until the human equivalent of the 5th or 6th month. Then the fetal mouse was destroyed to procure its stem cells, which were used to treat the ailing hearts of other mice.
So today we sanction the production of a 5-day old human life to destroy it. Tomorrow it's a 3-month-old, then an 8-month-old fetus. How far is it, really, from a 5-day-old cloned embryo to fetal farming - manufacturing fetal humans to harvest their body parts? Not very far, when one recognizes how well the slippery slopes have already been greased. This is why we must safeguard human life from its earliest beginnings, if we wish to avoid its destruction at any later stage.
As Charles Krauthammer, M.D., a syndicated columnist and member of the President's Council on Bioethics has put it: "We will, slowly and by increments, have gone from stem cells to embryo farms to factories with fetuses hanging (metaphorically) on meat hooks waiting to be cut open and used by the already born." Or, as Richard Doerflinger has perceptively noted, this is all about a new slavery, with biotech companies as the plantation owners.
Unless we take legal steps to assure that the rich, the powerful, and the self-interested are not allowed to run roughshod over embryonic and fetal humans, we will never be worthy of the claim that ours is a civilized society. Only if we are bold enough to challenge and alert our fellow Americans to the dangers of biotechnology without ethics can we avoid transitioning from the slippery slopes to outright downhill skiing. Before ending up in an irreparable heap at the bottom of the hill, we would do well to respond decisively to those threats that arise whenever science becomes detached from a strong and robust moral vision.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org