Ethics in Human Reproductive Research

For today’s blog, I’d like to continue a discussion begun by  Heather last week concerning the research of Jonathan Tilly’s group at Mass. General that was recently reported in Nature (Medicine) magazine (White, Y. A. R. et al., http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nm.2669/).  Briefly, Tilly and his colleagues claimed to have demonstrated a residual capacity of adult (human) ovarian tissue to produce new eggs (primary oocytes) contra the longstanding theory that the number of such were fixed at or shortly after birth. This residual capacity lies in the retention of “germline stem cells (GSCs),” which Tilly’s group isolated, extended, and then manipulated to produce a crop of oocytes.

Heather made several good points relating to the potential applications of Tilly’s research. The concerns I wish to raise relate more to the ethics of the research itself. First, we need to consider the source of the ovarian tissue used in the study – specifically, the GSCs were derived from the excised ovaries of women undergoing “sex reversal” surgery (SRS). It is tragic, to say the least, that some human beings consent to the extreme mutilation of their bodies in pursuit of a distorted view of gender and personal fulfillment. We may all agree that “gender confusion” is a condition in need of remediation, but the remedy is not to be found in a surgical manual. To make use of genitalia harvested from SRS, if not constituting outright complicity, at the least risks projecting an affirming attitude for a morally-bankrupt project.  Furthermore, women inclined to pursue SRS may also be emboldened by the prospect that their election of SRS could contribute to the advance of reproductive science.

Second, Tilly’s research raises significant ethical concerns in its use of a live mouse to nurture the developing human oocyte. Though Tilly mixes and matches species with no apparent concern, this farming out of the earliest stage of human reproduction to a murine surrogate truly warrants  the Midgley “Yuk factor” rating. Even more, this insertion of human flesh into the body of an animal  smacks of bestiality, which Scripture unequivocally condemns.  In creating various lifeforms “according to their kind,” God established an important boundary for our exercise of dominion over the animals. Differences in kind are to be valued and respected and not overrun by merging dissimilar flesh. I hesitate to claim that all forms of xenotransplantation are morally out of bounds. Prostheses of animal origin that are rendered inert prior to implantation into the human body (e.g. pig heart valves) would seem to raise fewer issues than the transfer of viable tissue that integrates in some fashion with the host. That distinction, I admit, rests chiefly upon intuition.

Your thoughts?

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Heather Z

Thanks for this writing this. I had read the origins of the oocytes in the article, and reluctantly left it out for brevity,and in keeping to one main topic. So I am really glad that you followed up on this.
Your points about growing oocytes in mice is also an important factor in this research.