The Religious Consultation
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Philadelphia Inquirer,
February 08, 2009

U.S. biologist part of panel to help Vatican bridge gap between science, religion

By Faye Flam

PHILADELPHIA _ When the Vatican invited Swarthmore biologist Scott Gilbert to Rome to discuss the beginning of human life, he wasn't sure why he was chosen. But he knew he had something to say.

Gilbert has studied for decades how humans and other animals make the journey from fertilized egg to baby. The conference, held in late 2007 in Rome, was meant to address the church's view on the beginning of life _ a question with huge implications for abortion policy, emergency contraception, and stem cell research.

Gilbert, author of the popular college textbook "Developmental Biology," said he was the only speaker to suggest that very early embryos were not equivalent to human beings. That led to lots of yelling and gesticulating in Italian, not all of which could be translated for him.

But that didn't hurt Gilbert's standing. He will return to Rome next month to continue the dialogue with church leaders.

Gilbert was one of about 20 speakers to address the 2007 conference, organized by the Vatican to help bridge gaps between religion and science. It involved six major pontifical universities.

"The vast majority of leadership internationally in the Catholic Church is trained in these universities," said Andrew Rick-Miller of the Radnor, Pa.-based Templeton Foundation, which co-sponsored the event.

A leader behind the effort is Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of pontifical council on culture. At a 2005 news conference, he said Catholics should pay attention to modern science to avoid falling into "fundamentalism."

Gilbert, who happens to be Jewish, spoke for 45 minutes and said his audience was mostly priests, physicians and graduate students in bioethics. The priests listened to him politely, he said, but the physicians were less patient.

"I was yelled at for saying that there is no scientific evidence that the morning-after pill causes abortions," he said. "Or I think that's what I was being yelled at for."

He said he agreed with the basic premise that human life is important and should be respected and protected. But he had issues with some scientific statements that Catholic authorities were making to support the position that an early embryo _ even a fertilized egg _ was a human being.

He said the fact that the fertilized egg contains a complete set of human DNA is often used to argue that it is not just a human cell but a human being.

But the emerging science of epigenetics shows that's not the case, Gilbert said.

Now, he said, scientists understand that genes, which are made from DNA, are surrounded by epigenetic "markers." These disable certain genes and activate others. Epigenetic markers are what make a fertilized egg capable of starting development, while a skin cell stays a skin cell.

In a human embryo, Gilbert said, factors in the environment can reorder the epigenetic markers, thereby changing all sorts of physical and mental traits.

Body type, for example, depends on how much food a mother eats when pregnant. If she is starving, it will set up an epigenetic pattern making her offspring more prone to store fat.

In animals, the results can be dramatic: Rats starting from the same DNA can turn out dark brown and lean or yellow and fat, depending on the amount of folic acid the mother gets in her diet.

Beyond that, the brains of many animals are permanently altered in early infancy by maternal care. In rats, grooming by the mother alters their brain chemistry by increasing the number of glucocorticoid receptors. Under stress, the cared-for rats will act less anxiously than genetically identical rats who never got such attention.

Even before science uncovered all this, he said, there were several strong arguments that individual identity had not been established in embryos that are created in fertility clinics and sometimes used for stem cell research. At that stage, an embryo can divide into a pair of identical twins. Even more astonishing, two early embryos with two different genetic codes can merge into a single embryo and develop into a single person.

Gilbert, who has a degree in comparative religion, said he also scanned the Bible to find passages that don't support the status of an embryo as a human being. Specifically, he said, Exodus 21:22 calls for a fine to be imposed on anyone who "causes a woman to miscarry," though Genesis 9:6 demands the death penalty for killing a human being.

The Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said human embryos are human beings, albeit at a very early stage in the life cycle. "Scott (Gilbert) somehow seems to be able to convince himself to overlook the key point for the discussion, namely, that he himself was an embryo not so long ago.

"Any destructive action directed against him when he was still in that stage of his growth would mean he never would have existed to write his poorly supported paper."

Pacholczyk said that just because environment influences the traits of an embryo does not make the embryo any less human. "He's trying to imply that it's not really human because these (epigenetic) patterns somehow influence it."

Gilbert agrees that human embryonic stem cells are human. But to him, they are not necessarily human beings.

He said that since an early embryo consists of a mass of cells with no brain or capacity for feeling, equating it with a human being may degrade human beings rather than elevate the embryos.

For him, development is a gradual process. After a fetus has a brain and enough of a nervous system to feel, however, a fetus might deserve some protection.

Therefore, he said, the church and the scientific community ought to work together to protect fetuses from chemicals known to disrupt development.

He is concerned by a number of studies showing potential harm from the common plastic ingredient Bisphenol A, as well as substances known as phthalates, found in numerous personal-care products. "Medical embryology and the Catholic Church have each declared a mission to save human fetuses," he said. "This is an area where they can productively act as allies."

Although he was outnumbered and even debated, he has been invited back to the Vatican in March to speak on another controversial issue: evolution. That meeting could be even more interesting, he said, since the church has in the past supported evolution, but has also found sympathy for the version of creationism known as intelligent design.

It's hard to say whether Gilbert's trip will soften opposition to stem cell research, but he said some of the priests were at least receptive to his ideas.

"The priests and I had discussions about biology and philosophy throughout the conference _ and I had a good time speaking with them."

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