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Religious leaders confront reproductive technologies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 9th, 2009

The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing has just issued an "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies."

The letter notes that "[f]or centuries, religious communities have provided direction, discernment and doctrine on issues of fertility, childbearing and family formation." However, it continues, there now exists

a relative silence when the issues shift to infertility and assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). The rapid growth of ARTs has outpaced religious and ethical discernment.
The letter raises issues about the safety, effectiveness and accessibility of reproductive technologies, and invites religious leaders to "engage in public discourse about the social and ethical issues involved in ARTs and speak out against ART practices that violate human rights and dignity."

There's no success like failure ...

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 6th, 2009

Pyreanean ibex
Pyreanean ibex

An attempt to clone the recently-extinct Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, resulted in a newborn kid that died within minutes because of breathing difficulties. Nevertheless, this was widely reported as a success, encouraging those who want to use cloning &/or genetic modification to save endangered species or revive extinct ones.

To this end, there are several tissue banks, with names such as "Frozen Zoo" and "Frozen Ark". Clearly there is value in these storage facilities, but they may be better suited to analysis than re-creation. Many other attempts have already been made or seriously discussed to clone or recreate extinct, endangered, threatened or simply vulnerable species:

  • Tasmanian tiger (extinct) -- discussions underway since 2002
  • Tasmanian devil (endangered) -- discussions continue
  • mammoth (extinct) -- genome largely sequenced, cloning speculation; previous attempts by Hwang Woo-Suk & (separately) a Japanese team failed
  • Neanderthal (extinct) -- speculation, genome reconstruction underway
  • Scottish wildcat (endangered) -- DNA being analyzed
  • African wildcat (threatened) -- cloned with a domestic cat surrogate, 2003
  • Asiatic cheetah (extinct in India) -- discussed in 2005
  • banteng (endangered Asian cattle) -- two cloned in 2003, but one was grossly malformed; that was not in the original report, which claimed: "They're both vigorous and healthy -- they look like little Bambis with their big brown eyes and ears."
  • mouflon lamb (endangered) -- cloned in 2001
  • gaur (vulnerable) -- 2001 clone died two days after birth

Other species discussed for cloning include the giant panda, the African bongo antelope, the Sumatran tiger, the pygmy hippo and the northern white rhino. The New Scientist recently added to the list the saber-toothed tiger, the short-faced bear, the woolly rhinoceros, the dodo, the giant ground sloth, the moa, the Irish elk, the giant beaver, and even the gorilla.

This looks more like a record of obsessive technophilia than a strategy for conservation. And it would certainly be useful if journalists would recognize that failure's no success at all.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Human Genetic Diseases in Dogs?

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 5th, 2009

Puppies cloned by RNL Bio
Puppies cloned by RNL Bio

Buried in last week's sentimental (and horrifying) stories about the $150,000 cloned dog was something interesting: Dog cloning is not fundamentally about pets. This is not news in these quarters, but it's good to get confirmation from, so to speak, the horse's mouth.

Here's Lou Hawthorne, chairman of BioArts, which arranged for that clone: "I don't think the dog [cloning] market is that big ... it's a terrible time to be cloning dogs or cats." Instead, continues the article in the UK Daily Telegraph, "BioArts is now building laboratories in China and looking to diversify into human embryonic stem cell research, as well as disease-testing techniques for viruses such as avian flu." According to the BioArts website, the Chinese subsidiary NingRen Biologics will focus on DNA testing for forensics, and paternity and ancestry testing.

Nevertheless, BioArts asserts that its principal rival in the dog-cloning business, RNL Bio, is committing patent infringement. BioArts claims to have exclusive rights to use patents that derive from the Roslin team that cloned Dolly the Sheep for dog and cat cloning. RNL Bio's basic defense seems to be that they use a different process: They extract stem cells from fat tissue and use them as the basis for cloning. And why would they do that? Here's RNL Bio President Ra Jeong-chan:

"If human genes are fused inside with a dog's stem cells and the stem cells are again used to clone a dog, we can create a dog with human genetic disorders. This is more significant than cloning a dog using a somatic cell."

The head scientist at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which does the actual cloning work for BioArts, would likely agree. He's Hwang Woo-Suk.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Reactions to the octuplets

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 4th, 2009

It's not difficult to have an opinion about last week's birth of octuplets near Los Angeles.

The 33-year-old mother already has six children, aged seven and younger, one of whom is autistic. She is an unemployed student (ironically, with a degree in child and adolescent development) and lives with her parents (who recently filed bankruptcy) in a 1500 square foot three-bedroom house. All her children were conceived by IVF. She has hired a publicity agent, and seeks $2 million for an interview. Her mother, the grandmother of the babies, reports that her daughter is "obsessed with children" and was "just hoping for one more daughter." A friend mysteriously reported that the woman could afford the fertility treatments because she was paid for them.

Will the octuplets be the tipping point toward serious consideration of regulation for the assisted reproduction industry? Might the U.S. baby business be ready to leave its Wild West days behind?

Here are some comments reported in the media:

David Magnus, Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics:

[I]f the octuplets were produced through in vitro fertilization, it would spotlight the poorly regulated infertility and reproduction field. "This is a huge problem," Magnus said. "You've got a virtually unregulated marketplace with tort law serving as regulation in the U.S.".The professional organizations should take a stricter line with doctors and clinics, he said. "They've been very loath to take that action." But "if you leave it up to the marketplace," he added, "there will be abuses."

Art Caplan, Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania (1, 2):

"She has a right to be left alone to decide for herself whether to have a baby. But that doesn't entitle you to the technology involved here."

"Anyone who transfers eight embryos should be arrested for malpractice."

Linda MacDonald Glenn, Women's Bioethics Project Scholar:

"Hopefully, this case will call attention to the need for regulation and oversight of Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Currently, we have a laissez-faire attitude towards ARTs and fertility clinics; we have trusted the doctors and clinics to regulate themselves, via the American Society for Reproductive Medicine - and this case demonstrates that we can no longer simply turn a blind eye."

M. Sara Rosenthal, bioethicist at the University of Kentucky's College of Medicine:

"[T]here's wide consensus from every single ethicist and fertility specialist that this was irresponsible and unethical to implant that many embryos. This is an outrageous situation that should not happen."

Dr. Geeta Swamy, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University:

"But it really is still up to the individual physician. There aren't any laws or legal ramifications to it."

R. Dale McClure, MD, President, American Society for Reproductive Medicine:

"[T]ransferring eight embryos in an IVF cycle is well beyond our guidelines."

Sean Tipton, American Society for Reproductive Medicine spokesman (1, 2):

"While the early press coverage touted the successful delivery of the octuplets as a happy, joyful thing, high-order multiple births should never be considered a medical success story. A number of commentators are saying a woman with six kids should not be allowed medical treatment to have additional ones, and I think, at a common sense level, that makes good sense. However, to make that work, that means someone is going to start deciding for other people how, when and why they can have children. That's a very big step and one that we might not be prepared to take."

"We have no legal authority to stop someone from practicing."

Suleena Kansal Kalra, reproductive endocrinologist, University of Pennsylvania:

"It's a complete failure when something like this happens, a poor reflection of what we do...To put this many embryos back in a woman who is so young and had proven fertility is completely irresponsible."

Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (via an email to Salon):

What I would check if I had the time is the extent to which coverage of this story - whether negative or positive - is framed as a question of ethics. When the pregnant woman is not brown or black and the drugs/technologies are provided by big pharma, the discussion focuses on questions of ethics. But if the issue is childbearing by low-income women of color, and the drug is homegrown/ illegal then the debate is a question of punishment through the criminal justice or civil child welfare system.... [W]omen who take fertility drugs and choose to carry three or more embryos to term often experience pregnancy loss and risk severe, lifelong harm to the children who survive."

Lisa Factora-Borchers at the blog of Bitch magazine:

"[I]f the feminist movements want to analyze her decision and talk about the ramifications of choosing this path of motherhood, I understand the need to pick the situation apart. What I don't understand is how her ability to choose is deemed wrong because she made a decision that most people would not have chosen. It's important to remember what women who came before us fought for and I'm pretty sure it was the right to choose not WHAT to choose. While we don't know all the circumstances, we know that she exercised a right that generations before us have fought so long for: accessible healthcare, reproductive health with knowledge, and, ultimately, the choice to make decisions about our own lives.
There's something to celebrate there."

Ann at the Feministing blog:

"That this was [the mother's] choice and she seems very happy, so that's that."

Richard Paulson, director of the fertility program at the University of Southern California, who helped write the American Society for Reproductive Medicine guidelines:

"We're picking out this incredibly rare event, and all of a sudden, we want to pass laws," says Paulson. "Would we write laws limiting the size of someone's family to six? Would we write laws mandating selective reduction?" he asks, referring to the option of aborting some embryos if a high number successfully implant in the uterus. "Restricting reproductive rights would be a minefield."

Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked:

"However, the implication behind the widespread denouncement of Suleman's doctors as 'irresponsible', 'negligent' and even 'criminal' is ominous indeed. Are we saying that doctors should decide which women are desirable for IVF treatment and which are not? That they should limit the choices of those women who are 'unmarried, unemployed' and who already have kids at home? And those who have 'no money, no job', too?"

Amy Tuteur, "The Skeptical OB":

"The "choice" is the decision to have an abortion, and it does not extend to any possible choice in reproductive ethics. That's why Nadya Suleman had a right to get pregnant, a right to terminate the pregnancy and a right to carry it to term. She had no right to deliberately conceive octuplets, however, and it is a misunderstanding of reproductive rights to claim that she did....
In the rush to protect abortion rights, people should not ignore the rest of medical ethics. The right to end a pregnancy does not confer the right to begin one using artificial means. The right to selectively reduce a multiple pregnancy does not confer the right to create a multiple pregnancy of any number of embryos. In fact, the right to control one's body does not confer the right to demand medical treatment of any kind if it is not medically indicated.
The "right to choose" is the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy; it does not confer a right to choose anything, even if it is a reproductive choice."

George Dvorsky, transhumanist:

Now, I'm a huge advocate of reproductive freedoms and equal access to repro-tech, but something clearly failed to happen here. In this case, the fertility clinic that performed the procedure failed to exercise both restraint and common sense. They also showed a complete disregard for guidelines - a strong indication that, while regulation exists for repro-tech procedures, it's not being enforced strongly enough. This needs to change...A lassez-faire approach to repro-tech won't work to protect the interests of those hoping to use these technologies and to protect those lives that are created as a result.

Update: See more recent quotes (Feb. 10)

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