Embryonic stem cell research raises much ethical conflict and debate as many individuals view the use of embryonic cells as murder and morally offensive. While stem cell research is still in its infancy, the potential that exists for the use of stem cells to save lives, reverse the effects of certain diseases, and give patients a more meaningful and productive life is astounding. Stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize the way diseases are treated and cured. At issue is not does science and medical treatments benefit from research into stem cells, but rather whether is stem cell research ethical when embryos are used for the research. However, as examined in this paper, the use of the word embryo in “embryonic stem cell research” is completely misleading to the public and to individuals who have not researched the truth behind stem cell research.
When one thinks of an embryo, one may picture a baby inside the amniotic sac in a pregnant woman’s womb, and this is a fairly accurate picture of an embryo. However, this is an idealistic and an inaccurate depiction of the stem cells used for research; the fact is, embryos are not used for stem cell research. The vast majority of “embryonic” stem cells used in research are derived when the “embryo” is only a few days old, meaning that the “embryo” is just a mass of cells with no heart, no brain, and no nervous system (National Institutes of Health, 2009). At this time in development, the embryo is not an embryo at all; rather, the “embryo” is called a blastocyst (Wertz, 2001). After 14 days of development in the womb, the blastocyst loses its plasticity, and approximately half of the stem cells begin to develop into the placenta while the other half of the stem cells begin to develop into the heart, nervous system, and other organs losing or severely limiting their viability to be used in stem cell research, and in the process, the blastocyst becomes an embryo (Wertz, 2001). Prior to the 14th day in which the stem cells begin changing into the placenta, losing its ability to be used in stem cell research, and the process to becoming an embryo begins, the blastocyst has the potential to become a human being, but it also has the potential to become many other things.
Scientists and doctors have been working with stem cells for decades through the application of bone marrow transplants, but the extraction of the bone marrow (as well as the stem cells) is painful and risky for the donor and the recipient. The donor and recipient’s DNA have to be a close match or the recipient will reject the transplant, which can happen regardless of how close the match is. Stem cell research could eliminate not only the pain, but also the need for such close matches and organ rejection. While some stem cells can be extracted from adult human beings, the supply is extremely limited, and the cells have little plasticity, or ability to be redirected to other uses. This also makes it difficult to grow to make large enough quantities to be worthwhile. Once cells become specialized, they are limited in the amount of time they can be divided and grown, and they lose the ability to become any type of cell. Although advances in the use and extraction of stem cells from adults will come in the near future, questions still remain about the extraction procedures and just how useful the adult stem cells can be. (National Institutes of Health, 2009)
Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become nearly any cell in the human body; stem cells may remain stem cells in the body, or when called upon, become a specialized cell to perform a specific function, such as brain matter, a muscle, pancreatic tissue, a red blood cell, and many others. Once embryonic cells have been extracted to create a cell “line,” the cells become immortal in the sense that they can continue to be divided and grown infinitely. The implications of this are that there only needs to be a limited supply of embryonic cells to create an unlimited supply of useful stem cells, without the repeated need for the extensive labor that is needed to extract the stem cells. (National Institutes of Health, 2009)
Some objections raised include the sanctity of life, but since the blastocyst has no heartbeat, which are the direct indicator of life, then the sanctity of life conflict does not apply. Still others may object on the grounds that using blastocysts for experimentation is nothing short of murder. To address this objection, one must look no further than the definition of murder. Random House Webster’s Dictionary (1997) defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a person, esp. when deliberate or premeditated” (p. 473). Obviously, the blastocyst it not yet a person or nor does it resemble a person in any way. Many object to embryonic stem cell harvesting due to religious beliefs that the moment of conception the soul is placed in the body by God; however, since most religions cite the location of soul as in the mind or the heart and the blastocyst cells used have no mind, body, or heart yet, then the cells do not equate “a life” and have no soul. Additionally, any cell within the blastocyst can become the placenta, which in most cases is discarded after birth as medical waste (Wertz, 2001).
Opponents to abortion object to stem cell research, because they believe embryonic stem cell research is unethical; however, Singer (2001) states that no reason exists “…to object to research conducted on a being that has no brain, consciousness, preferences of any kind, or capacity for suffering” (p. 1). Singer (2001) also argues that the use of blastocysts for research is more ethical than the use of rats and other animals used in research, since blastocyst can feel no pain, has no brain, no heart, and no consciousness; the animals used for research definitely feel pain.
The two primary sources of blastocyst are: those that are aborted, and those that were never implanted from in vitro fertilization. As an organism of only a few cells and with no brain, the blastocyst has no ability to reason, understand, or give informed consent. So, whose shoulders does the decision fall upon? Since the blastocyst is nothing more than a group of cells, the only person or persons to give consent for the use in medical research would be the owners of the blastocyst. The owners of the blastocyst solely make the decision to destroy the blastocysts never implanted or donate them to scientific research and the potential mother and father who decided to abort. In both cases, the blastocyst is unwanted by the owners, has no other use, and would otherwise be destroyed. So, the question becomes, would it be better to destroy blastocysts or use blastocysts to make revolutionary medical advances, improve quality of life, ease suffering, and potentially save millions of lives?
While the objections to stem cell research are emotionally charged, the basis for the objections are not rooted in fact or reasoning that justifies the destruction of blastocysts when it can be used to save lives, improve the human condition, and potentially eliminate deaths caused by certain diseases. Scientists are excited, for good reason, about the potential for embryonic stem cells to be used as a way to transport medicine, reprogram cells within the human body, treat cancer, repair birth defects, repair spinal cord injuries, replace diseased or damaged organs, grow skin for burn victims, and treat or cure diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy, lymphoma, leukemia, and diabetes, among many others (National Institutes of Health, 2009). Blastocyst stem cells provide a superior quality product for research, than do stem cells derived from adult humans. The possibilities are endless for the good that can be accomplished through the research conducted on stem cells.
National Institutes of Health. (2009). FAQs: In stem cell information. Methesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/faqs.
Random House Webster’s Dictionary. (1997). Murder. The Balantine Publishing Group by Random House Inc.
Singer, P. (2001). Research using human embryos is morally acceptable. At Issue: The Ethics of Abortion. Ed. Jennifer A. Hurley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
Wertz, D. C. (2001). Fetal tissue research will benefit medical science. Current Controversies: The Abortion Controversy. Ed. Lynette Knapp. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.