Testimony before the Maryland House Health and Government Operations Committees by Alfonso Gomez-Lobo

Date: 03/12/2003

March 12, 2003
I am both honored and grateful for this opportunity to testify on a bill of such momentous implications as the one before you.

I am a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, but I am not here as a representative of the Council, nor are my views intended to reflect the deliberations and recommendations of that body. However, I am attaching to this testimony a letter signed by five members of the Council, including myself, conveying to you our considered opinion about the implications of Bill 482. Nevertheless, the views expressed in what follows are strictly my own. I stand before you as a Maryland resident who teaches moral philosophy and the history of ethics at Georgetown University.

The preamble of Bill 842 states that “(s)tem cell research, including use of embryonic stem cells for medical research, raises significant ethical and policy concerns that must be carefully considered.” With your leave, I would like to address some of those ethical concerns.

Subtitle 8 authorizes stem cell research. Both sections of Subtitle 8 explicitly state that the human stem cells involved can be derived “from any source.”  And this is deeply troubling.

From a moral point of view the source and the manner in which human stem cells are obtained is of the utmost importance.

Please allow me to sort out some of the different sources:

(1) HUMAN ADULT STEM CELLS. These cells can be obtained by a simple procedure such as drawing blood or extraction of bone marrow from a grown individual. As long as the procedure is reasonably safe and the person has given his or her informed consent, there is absolutely no ethical objection to this manner of providing material for research. Indeed, this source, together with stem cells derived from the umbilical cord or placenta of newborns, should be at the forefront of our efforts to find the cures promised by this invaluable new resource for human healing. No one is harmed, the dignity of human beings is respected, and the transplantation of cells and tissues back to the donor would not be subject to rejection.

(2) EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS. These are the cells obtained from a human embryo conceived by fusion of male and female gametes and allowed to grow to the blastocyst stage. At present (as far as I know) these cells cannot be obtained without destroying a human embryo. Apart from the fact that there is no genetically exact match for cells and tissues obtained in this way (due most probably to the difference in mitochondrial DNA), there is the serious moral objection that a genetically human being is allowed to grow and then dismembered. Nascent human life is being used exclusively as a means for our own goals. The same holds for stem cells derived from so-called “spare” embryos “left over” from in vitro fertilization attempts. These embryos, usually preserved by being frozen under special conditions, are also human beings at an early stage of their lives. If implanted under proper conditions, they would grow to become adults like you and me. Here too we have an extreme instrumentalization of human life.

(3) STEM CELLS FROM CLONED EMBRYOS. The Bill explicitly includes cells derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), an accurate description of the procedure known in everyday language as “cloning.” As we know from Dolly the sheep, human SCNT (if successful) would consist in inserting into the previously enucleated egg of a woman the full complement of 46 chromosomes of a somatic cell. Since Dolly was a sheep, a cloned human being would be a human being, and the aforementioned moral concerns would also apply to this case. There is a further reason for concern.

(4) STEM CELLS FROM CLONED FETAL TISSUE AND FROM CLONED ADULTS. Bill 482 authorizes the production of cloned human embryos. This would create the availability of such embryos for implantation into a uterus for the gestation and later birth of a human clone. Since embryonic germ cells and cadaveric fetal tissue can only be obtained after implantation, and since the use of both is authorized, it follows that the first step in reproductive cloning is not banned. The explicit reference to “human adult stem cells” followed twice by the emphatic expression “from any source, including SCNT” insures that reproductive cloning is allowed.

Now, both President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Committee (Rockville, 1997) and the National Academy of Sciences (Washington DC 2002) have warned that reproductive cloning is a procedure that involves enormous risks of harm for the mother and the child. There is also, in my view, the serious moral concern derived from the willful imposition of a specific genome on a human being. This would be again a case of instrumentalization and violation of dignity.

You have probably heard the claim that an embryo is not a person and therefore deserves no respect or only a “special” respect that does not prevent us from destroying him or her (I deliberately use the personal pronouns because an embryo already has the XX or XY combination of chromosomes that make it male or female). I could give you lengthy arguments against the view that an embryo does not deserve our respect. I will limit myself to a few elementary considerations.

In the courts today if the DNA of the defendant matches the DNA found at the site of the crime, we know that the defendant is the same individual as the criminal. Scientists tell us that the DNA we have now is the same DNA we had at the embryonic stage. Whether mature personhood starts in late infancy or early childhood, each of us is the same individual he or she was at the embryonic stage. If I had been destroyed at the embryonic stage, I would not be here. The Golden Rule requires that I respect nascent life just as my life was respected.

It should be noted that the claim that each of us starts as a one cell organism is a matter of strict scientific evidence and not of religious belief. It is something anyone can understand and accept. If at all possible, I would like to include as part of my deposition an article from the prestigious journal Nature (July 4, 2002) that provides the background information for the view I have presented.

In sum, Bill 482 is a law that while forbidding the purchase and selling of tissue derived from stem cells would in fact authorize what can be appropriately called “embryo farming”, that is, the production, cultivation, implantation, and subsequent destruction of countless human embryos, cloned or not, for our own benefit. In my view, the Bill should not be approved in its present form. A law that promotes the production and destruction of human life cannot be a binding law. Maryland should have a law encouraging, perhaps even subsidizing, research on stem cells derived from willing and consenting adults. It would be the morally correct thing to do, and probably the one that may well lead more readily to the therapies we all desire for ourselves and our loved ones.

Note: As presented to the committee this testimony included two attachments: A letter opposing HB 482, signed by the witness and four other individuals who serve on the President’s Council on Bioethics; and an article by Helen Pearson, “Your destiny, from day one,” in 418 NATURE (4 July 2002), pp. 14-15.