July 6, 2022

Stanford bioethicist closes ethical gap

William Hurlbut

It may be possible to obtain embryonic stem cells without creating an embryo, contends a conservative American bioethicist who sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Frustrated by the poisonous stalemate between those who view the embryo as a human being and those who dismiss it as mere human tissue, Dr William Hurlbut argues that it is possible to use cloning technology to create a being which could never develop into an embryo, still less a baby.

According to the Boston Globe, Hurlbut’s idea, which he calls altered nuclear transfer” has the support of leading opponents of embryonic stem cell research. Archbishop William Levada, of San Francisco, who handles doctrinal matters for US Catholic bishops, has even written to President George Bush in support of the idea. Now Hurlbut plans to table his proposal in the bioethics council.

The technique would work like this: before beginning the cloning process, DNA from a skin cell would be altered to prevent the trophectoderm, the outer layer of cells which eventually becomes the placenta, from developing. Without the trophectoderm, the cell mass can never become an embryo. However, it would grow large enough to allow stem cells to be harvested from it. Some leading scientists are intrigued by the concept. One of them, Evan Snyder, of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, plans to apply for a grant from California’s new stem cell institute to see if it can be done with mice.

Despite encouraging noises from Christian allies like Princeton’s Robert George, Hurlbut faces an uphill battle to persuade ethicists and the public that this cell mass is not an embryo. The perennial stumbling-block for the moral status of embryos is whether biological potential for humanity constitutes a human person. Apart from the immense technical difficulties involved in making his idea a reality, it will be difficult to reach agreement on whether that potentiality has been stifled or whether it never existed at all.