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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Natural law and oocytes

A commenter suggested that there might be objections to the use of human oocytes (unfertilized egg cells) for the production of embryonic stem cells, on the grounds that their natural purpose is human reproduction, not preparation of cell cultures which might make artificially-produced human embryonic stem cells. (See my recent post on Altered Nuclear Transfer-Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (or ANT-OAR)) I believe that this sort of objection would be an example of moral reasoning based on natural law. Such reasoning has often been used by Roman Catholic theologians, going back to Thomas Aquinas. Natural Law theory can be complex and ambiguous.

As I understand it, natural law reasoning is used to support the official Catholic view that most or all kinds of contraception are wrong, because the purpose of sexual activity is to produce children, so that thwarting that purpose would be wrong. C. S. Lewis, who was not a Roman Catholic, also seemed to hold that view. (The web page the previous link refers to was written by me, but I have been unsuccesful in persuading the publishers to correct the spelling of my name. There are a few other errors, also minor. I am grateful that it is available, however! The section on birth control is near the end.)

So, would natural law reasoning prohibit the use of oocytes for purposes other than "normal" reproduction? It might, indeed, but I am not sure that it would, or should, for three reasons.

First, both my sources for the technique described are significantly influenced by Catholics. The editor of First Things is a Catholic priest. The other periodical, Ethics & Medics, is a publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which says it "derives its message directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church." The articles in neither periodical raised this objection. (This is a link to the article there, in .PDF format)

Second, under one circumstance, I'm guessing that natural law would not prohibit use of oocytes for such a purpose. That circumstance is if the person who wished to be cured provided her own oocytes. It would seem to me that using your own oocytes in an attempt to save your life, or to significantly improve its quality, would be justifiable morally, even if it wasn't their normal purpose. I'm not aware that the use of self-grafts is opposed on moral grounds, even though, say, removing skin from the back, and placing in the nose, changes the natural purpose of such skin. (Not as radically as using oocytes for ANT-OAR, I admit.) Coronary bypass surgery also generally uses self-grafts, I believe.

Third, selfless giving for others is encouraged strongly by the teachings of Jesus, and, I suppose, could trump natural law. Should a competent ovulating woman volunteer to donate a few oocytes for the purpose of producing embryonic stem cells to significantly aid the life or well-being of another person, even for a person or persons unknown to her, it seems to me that her gift should not be refused. I would oppose any exploitation or coercion of women in order to obtain oocytes, and compensating them materially would be questionable, in my view.

Even if Catholics raised no objections to the use of oocytes in this way, others might, and such objections should be seriously considered. Here's an article on the use of donor gametes in relation to Jewish law. It doesn't consider oocyte donation for ANT-OAR.

I appreciate all comments, unless they are automated ones using my blog to try to sell something. The commenter, Bonnie, has posted extensively on moral issues, including those related to human reproduction, and is worth reading on any subject she tackles. She has some recent posts on autoerotism.

ScienceBlog has a post on "Gametes and embryos from mammalian stem cells: religious and ethics perspectives," which doesn't consider ANT-OAR, but does deal with the subject of its title. Warning: there are quite a few ads on this page.

1 comment:

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