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Human Embryo Threatened by Legal Chaos, Says Forum: Conclusions of Bioethics Meeting in Brussels

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    Human Embryo Threatened by Legal Chaos, Says Forum: Conclusions of Bioethics Meeting in Brussels

    ate: 2002-10-22
    Human Embryo Threatened by Legal Chaos, Says Forum
    Conclusions of Bioethics Meeting in Brussels

    BRUSSELS, Belgium, OCT. 22, 2002 ( The human embryo is caught in the cross fire between medical reality and legal chaos, an international bioethics forum concluded.

    Some 600 people, many of them youths, attended the two-day forum here, which ended Sunday. Medicine and the Dignity of Man, an international association that originated in France, organized the meeting.

    The objective of the forum, as well as that of the association, is to "promote a medical ethic founded on the principles of the dignity of the human being and of respect for every human life" (see
    Biomedicine questions itself

    During the forum, a group of scientists and doctors addressed the biomedical questions arising from procedures on the human embryo.

    Paulina Taboada, a physician with a doctorate in philosophy, of the International Academy of Liechtenstein, sized up the current debate on "therapeutic" cloning -- the creation of embryos for medical use or experimentation -- and reproductive cloning.

    The biomedical analysis, she explained, concludes that "the only difference between the two cases consists in the evolution of the embryo's life or in its manipulation."

    "The ethical questions that are posed in regard to reproductive cloning must also be applied to therapeutic cloning," she concluded.

    Professor Giuseppe Noia, gynecologist at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome, offered scientific data on embryonic and adult stem cells and on their use to regenerate different tissues, and advocated a new scientific possibility: xenotransplants, namely, the use of animal organs.

    Dr. Catherine Sibille of the Center of Human Genetics of the Catholic University of Leuven explained that "prenatal diagnoses, increasingly systematic, are an extraordinary advance in research to know and detect certain illnesses better, but at the same time they open the way to eugenic selection."

    Philippe Anthonioz, professor of embryology of the University Hospital Center of Tours, in France, addressed the question of the status of filiation of the human clone. Biologically, whose child is the cloned embryo? he asked.

    Noting that the very early life of the embryo gives it its immense capacity for transformation, the professor said, "I don't speak of 'embryos' but of 'embryonic children.'"

    Legal aspects

    A group of eminent European jurists, including Guy de Vel, director general of Legal Affairs of the Council of Europe, addressed the legal questions that affect the human embryo. They stated that the documents of the Council of Europe, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the legislation of various nations cause "legal chaos."

    Blumberg Mokri, lawyer of Paris' Court of Appeal, said: "We can appreciate that, as opposed to what happens in other fields of law, the legislative practice both in France, as well as at the regional European level, consists in establishing rules of protection around the human embryo, even before being able to offer a definition of this protected interest."

    For Carlo Casini, member of the Italian National Bioethics Committee, the "legal chaos" cannot continue because of the serious consequences it will have at the level of the definition of human rights.

    "Europe is not just a market and competition; it is also a privileged legal area of the rights of man," Casini emphasized.

    Ethical questions

    Lastly, the forum addressed ethical questions related to the human embryo.

    Father Gonzalo Miranda, professor and dean of the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, explained that from the moment of fertilization, each cell interacts with other cells, in the reality of the unique character of the new human being. This is the beauty of maternity, he said.

    Also on hand was Dr. Xavier Mirabel, French cancer specialist and president of the Collective Against Handiphobia, a group that fights for rights for the disabled.

    Mirabel described the symptoms of a society full of anxieties in which the least risk of disability among the unborn leads to the selective elimination of embryos. Since it is not possible to treat Down syndrome children in the womb, he said, the little ones are simply eliminated.

    For her part, Martha Tarasco Michel, professor of the School of Bioethics of the University of Anahuac in Mexico, spoke about the narcissistic projection of parents in the unborn child, which promotes the "myth of the perfect child."

    At the end of the congress, Elizabeth Bourgois, president of Medicine and the Dignity of Man, presented the forum's final resolutions, which state: "Even before constituting a problem of civil and penal law, respect for the human being is above all an exigency of civilization."

    Because of this, the participants appealed to the European Union and its member states to take "the indispensable legislative measures to defend, protect and promote every human person, ensuring his/her protection with the law from his/her conception."

    In the second place, they request that the legislation prohibit "every form of manipulation of the human embryo, its cloning, destruction or mutilation."

    Forum participants "are opposed to the subsidizing of research that, systematically manipulating human embryos, violates in them the dignity of humanity."

    They commit themselves "to favor urgently all research on stem cells, but only if they are adult stem cells."

    Lastly, they "commit themselves to favor research on the treatment of genetic diseases without destroying or mutilating sick embryos."

    At the opening of the congress, Archbishop Luigi Celata, apostolic nuncio in Belgium, read a message from John Paul II, in which he expressed the hope that the initiative would contribute to "enlighten consciences so that the dignity of the human being will be fully respected from his/her conception."

    Thank you, seneca, for posting this. Having attended several bioethics meetings in the past year or two on this issue, it is interesting to see one that is largely dominated by Catholic presenters. There are several important issues or lines that this debate did not cross or attempt to address. First and foremost, almost no attention was paid to the rights of people with disabilities and diseases that may benefit from stem cell research. The promise of stem cell research for curing diseases and disabilities is of course the whole reason why the debate is happening.

    Second, I was hopeful (from the title of the article) that there would be some recognition of the fact that the stalemate that we are currently in is resulting in a situation that neither side wants. At present, we have virtually unregulated destruction and utilization of embryos by private organizations.

    Third, many of the presenters seem to have made simplistic assumptions of what therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Of course, this may have been a fault of the reporter in summarizing the talks in such a format. However, at least one of the discussions, i.e. not mutilating or harming "sick embryos" to gain information about genetic diseases, suggests an approach that may be similar to the stance of society towards use of cadavers for the study of the human body during the middle ages. Because certain societies felt that dissection of cadavers would desecrate the body, many governments forbade the use of human bodies for study. Like many detractors of human embryonic research, church officials during the Middle Ages claimed that such research would be unnecessary or unhelpful. They point out to the emotional and moral disgust associated with dissection of dead bodies. In retrospect, the prohibition of cadaver dissections held back development of medical knowledge in Western Europe and allowed the flowering of medical sciences in Persia and China for most of the Middle Ages. A similar situation may be happening today with the prohibition of human embryonic stem cell research and therapies in the U.S. and Europe.

    There is little dispute amongst scientists today around the world that stem cells represent the crux of future reparative therapies. For most of human history, surgical and medical therapies were oriented towards preventing damage and removing tissues rather than repairing damage and reconstructing tissue. While it is true that adult stem cells and also differentiated cells can and will play an important role in stem cell therapies of the future, the restrictions on the study of embryonic stem cells will slow down the development of stem cell therapies.

    One of the unfortunate aspects of the debate is that most detractors of embryonic stem cell research have focussed on stopping humane embryonic stem cells research rather than encouraging adult or alternative stem cell research. I wish that people who attack embryonic stem cell research would put the same amount of energy into supporting adult or alternative stem cell research. For example, it is strange that we do not hear people calling out for more funding of umbilical cord blood stem cell banks so that these stem cells would be available for study.