Stemming the Tide of Immoral Research

Casey Carmical
Reproduced with Permission

The votes are in. People prefer health to disease, and a majority would like to find cures to sicknesses that plague mankind. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the international media appears to doubt that this is the case. The issue of research on embryonic stem cells is often presented as proponents of promising research which may lead to cures for all sorts of heartrending medical conditions versus the uncompassionate opponents of such research who would rather let people suffer than to compromise their (irrational) beliefs. Case in point: CNN. A July 17, 2001 headline from CNN labeled opponents of embryonic stem cell research as "research foes."1 There were no classifiers to indicate support for different kinds of research. No, opponents of embryonic stem cell research are portrayed as foes of research in general. The article does not even give passing mention to alternative research.

In order to arrive at an informed opinion on embryonic stem cell research, however, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the issue. This would be impossible if one were to rely solely on the one-sided presentations of the media. In fact, the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-partisan group dedicated to speaking the truth in political debates that involve science, reported that the mainstream media had under-reported or completely ignored research breakthroughs involving adult stem cells or alternate sources while giving unwarranted prominence to the potential of embryonic stem cells.2 In this essay I will examine the following fundamental questions:

What are Stem Cells?

Dr. Dianne Irving, former research biochemist/biologist with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), defines stem cells as "essentially primordial cells of a human organism (i.e., a human being) which are capable of becoming all or many of the 210 different kinds of tissues in the human body."3 These cells divide, generating two progeny (or "daughter cells"), one of which will become something new and another which will replace the original cell. That is where the term "stem" comes from, meaning stem cells give rise to other more specialized cells.4

Stem cells come in three basic types: totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent. Totipotent means the cell's potential is "total."5 These are found in the human embryo up to about the 4-day morula stage.6 Pluripotent means that the cells can give rise to many types of cells but not all types of cells.7 Multipotent cells are more specialized.8 These are also often referred to as embryonic, fetal, and adult stem cells, respectively. Now you know the basics of what stem cells are. It is not what they are, however, but how they are obtained that is immoral.

What Happens to Embryos Used in Research?

There is nothing wrong with experimenting on stem cells, even embryonic stem cells. If the cells could be obtained without intrusion, there would be no debate, because there is no moral value attached to a cell. The problem is that for embryonic stem cell research to take place, stem cells are extracted from their bodies, resulting in their death.

Many who support human embryonic stem cell research adhere to the ethical position that it is okay to destroy a few human beings for the benefit of many. Others believe that since they are sentenced to death anyway there is nothing wrong with bringing some good out of their deaths. Still others do not accept the embryo's humanity and justify themselves by pretending that humans are not persons until they are born.

The first argument is similar to a widely accepted principle, namely, that if we have to decide between losing two lives or saving one we should save one life. However, in the case of embryonic stem cell research, we have no such situation. Even if we assume that the sick or injured person will die without such research, the embryo will not. The choice here is whether to pursue cures which do not involve the death of innocents or to sacrifice innocents for research which may or may not produce a cure. Utilitarian arguments that we should put the benefit of many over the lives of a few are what led bin Laden to destroy the World Trade Centers.

The second argument is convincing at first, but fails under analysis. Dr. Irving states, "...if impending death were the criteria for being allowed to kill human beings, then we could also kill terminally ill patients, death-row inmates and military service personnel facing combat for their organs and stem cells too -- for the 'greater good.'"9 Furthermore, I would like to add that these children should not be slated for death in the first place. These embryos are created under immoral conditions as well. There should be no "spare" embryos at all. Since human life begins at conception and human life is sacred, no embryos should be created so that perhaps one out of seven will implant in and impregnate a woman who has difficulty getting pregnant. Certainly, this technique has resulted in many happy mothers, but it has also spelled death for thousands of innocent human beings.

The last argument is common in the abortion debate, but it doesn't work here any more than it does there. We have no authority to bestow the rights of personhood on certain human beings and deny them to others arbitrarily. The word person is a synonym for human being, and embryos are scientifically recognized human beings. Humans have a dark history of denying personhood to the weaker members of society.

Will Experiments With Embryonic Stem Cells Yield Beneficial Results?

Perhaps some may be persuaded to oppose embryonic stem cell research simply because it isn't as promising as adult stem cell research.

Maureen Condic notes,

While the scientific advantages and potential medical application of embryonic stem cells have received considerable attention in the public media, the equally compelling scientific and medical disadvantages of transplanting embryonic stem cells or their derivatives into patients have been ignored.10

The Institute of Science in Society in London mentioned a specific example from Science Magazine:

An article published in Science earlier last year showed that mice cloned from embryonic stem cells by nuclear transfer suffered many genetic defects due to the genetic instability of the embryonic stem cells. The Washington Post reported that a key phrase referring to the genetic instability of the embryonic stem cells that might 'limit their use in clinical application', was removed days before the paper appeared in print.11

Condic lists three scientific arguments against the use of embryonic stem cells as a treatment for disease and injury.

  1. There are profound immunological issues associated with putting cells derived from one human being into the body of another. Stem cell transplants, like organ transplants, would not buy a cure, only time.
  2. Many of the factors required for the correct differentiation of embryonic cells are not chemicals readily reproduced in petri dishes. Instead, they are structural or mechanical elements uniquely associated with the complex environment of the embryo.
  3. We simply do not have sufficient evidence from animal studies to warrant a move to human experimentation. To date there is no evidence that cells generated from embryonic stem cells can be safely transplanted into adult animals to restore the function of damaged or diseased adult tissues.12

Supporters of the research have proposed solutions to remedy these problems, but alas their proposals are also flawed. The proposed solutions to the first argument "are either scientifically dubious, socially unacceptable, or both."13 To overcome the problem of immune systems, some have proposed large scale genetic engineering of embryonic stem cells to alter their immune characteristics. There is no current evidence, however, that such a task could ever be accomplished. "Therapeutic cloning" has also been proposed, but such cells would likely be abnormal. Not to mention the moral issues involved in cloning. Scientists may hope to replicate in petri dishes the nonmolecular components of the embryonic environment, but such technology is not currently available, nor is it likely to be in the near future. Condic states, "Even in very small numbers, embryonic stem cells produce teratomas, rapid growing and frequently lethal tumors."14 Finally, regardless of the hype there is not even enough evidence from animal studies to warrant this morally questionable research. Before even asking people to accept morally reprehensible research, ample research on animals should first be carried out.

Are There Alternatives?

As previously mentioned, there are three types of stem cells: embryonic, fetal, and adult. Also mentioned was the fact that adult stem cells are more promising for further research. Dr. Irving argues against using embryonic stem cells. Her reasons are:

Condic adds that adult stem cells do not form teratomas. But despite all this, some researchers would still prefer to use embryonic stem cells. The reasons are summarized by ISIS:

Embryonic stem cells are 'pluripotent', i.e., they can make every cell type of the body, while adult stem cells are 'multipotent' and can make many, but not all cell types. Consequently, adult stem cells may be immensely useful for treatment of some human disease, but unable to make certain cell types required for treatment of other unspecified, diseases.

Adult stem cells, unlike those derived from the embryo, cannot be expanded in culture without losing developmental potential.16

Condic objects to these concerns. She explains that it is yet unclear at this point whether adult stem cells are, in fact, more restricted than their embyronic counterparts. And she notes that even if adult stem cells are unable to generate the full spectrum of cell types in the body, this is likely an advantage. She sarcastically notes, "patients rarely go to the doctor needing a full body replacement. If a patient with heart disease can be cured using adult cardiac stem cells, the fact that these 'heart-restricted' stem cells do not generate kidneys is not a problem for the patient."17 Another doctor said that he wouldn't want toenails growing in his brain. As far as the second objection goes, Condic points out that improving the proliferation rate of cells in culture is a technical problem that will likely be overcome. Furthermore, treating patients with their own cells would eliminate the need for large numbers of cells.18


Despite the media's attempts to persuade the general population otherwise, there are serious scientific challenges to the use of embryonic stem cells as a medical treatment of disease and injury. Additionally, the use of these cells requires the death of an innocent human being. Human embryonic stem cell research is both unethical and unnecessary, and does not deserve the public's support. Adult stem cell research, on the other hand, holds out nearly as much promise without the ethical problems. We all want to find cures to disease. Some of us, however, would like to avoid sacrificing innocent lives in the process.


1 CNN. Research foes decry embryo 'slaughter'. [Back]

2 Institute of Science in Society. Hushing up Adult Stem Cells. [Back]

3 Irving, Diane N. Stem Cell Research: some pros and cons. [Back]

4 Condic, Maureen L. The Basics About Stem Cells. [Back]

5 National Institutes of Health Stem Cells: A Primer [Back]

6 Condic, Maureen L. The Basics About Stem Cells. [Back]

7 National Institutes of Health. Stem Cells: A Primer. [Back]

8 Ibid. [Back]

9 Irving, Diane N. Stem Cell Research: some pros and cons. [Back]

10 Condic, Maureen L. The Basics About Stem Cells. [Back]

11 Institute of Science in Society. Hushing up Adult Stem Cells. [Back]

12 Condic, Maureen L. The Basics About Stem Cells. [Back]

13 Ibid [Back]

14 Ibid [Back]

15 Irving, Diane N. Stem Cell Research: some pros and cons. [Back]

16 Institute of Science in Society. Hushing up Adult Stem Cells. [Back]

17 Condic, Maureen L. The Basics About Stem Cells. [Back]

18 Ibid [Back]