UFL PRO VITA: Newsletter of the University Faculty for Life, Washington, D.C.; Vol. X, No. 1 (October 1999), pp. 1-2.

Stem Cell Research: some pros and cons1

Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D 2
copyright October 15, 1999

Science is moving at warp speed these days -- cloning, gene therapy, miracle drugs, exotic therapies, etc. One of the most significant breakthroughs came in November 1998, when two separate researchers successfully isolated stem cells from human embryos and aborted fetuses. The impassioned hopes are that these stem cells can be used to great advantage. The cautious fears are that innocent and vulnerable human beings are destroyed, and needlessly so, in the process.

The debates are raging. Many people are confused about what stem cell research really is, and wonder why all the fuss. There are several well documented and well-articulated sources of information available on this issue already,3 so the following is simply a brief over-view of some of the major scientific, ethical and legal pros and cons.

Question: What is stem cell research?

Answer: Stem cells are 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. Stem cells have traditionally been defined as not fully differentiated yet (or, not fully determined yet) to be any particular type of cell or tissue. They range from "totipotent", i.e., almost totally undifferentiated and capable of becoming any tissue in the body (as in the early human embryo up to about the 4-day morula stage), to "pluripotent", i.e., more differentiated and therefore only capable of becoming some cells or tissues in the body (as in the 5-7-day blastocyst stage of the early human embryo, with decreasing capacity in later stages of fetal development, and in adult human beings).

However, complicating the current debates are very recent research findings indicating that yet another heretofore scientific mantra has been broken: the definitions of these three categories of stem cells (embryonic, fetal and adult). It was thought that only the earliest stem cells were "totipotent". But it has now been demonstrated that not only "pluripotent" cells can be "de-programmed" and returned to earlier states of differentiation, but even the most highly differentiated cells can have their biological fates so reversed - as happened with Dolly. Furthermore, research studies now also demonstrate that cells which were "fated" to become only a small range of cell types and tissues in one organ (e.g., different types of blood cells), can now be "coaxed" to become cell types and tissues of an entirely different organ system (e.g., different types of neurons). Hence, the very definition of "stem cell" has itself been dramatically and only very recently altered.

One way not to define a "stem cell" is that given by Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of NIH, in his January 1999 Senate testimony on stem cell research. There and elsewhere (including the official NIH web site on stem cell research) Varmus defined an early "human embryo" as just stem cells, rather than giving the scientifically accurate definition of an "embryo" as a human being. Now, perhaps the cells of an early human embryo are totipotent, or pluripotent (depending on the age), but the early human embryo is also a human being per se from fertilization. He further defined a "human being" as existing only if implanted and developed to adulthood - a rather bizarre thought. These scientific definitions have great significance in arguments for and against the use of human embryonic stem cell research. Once again the use of the correct science is fundamental in understanding the ethical distinctions in these debates.

Question: What are the major purposes or goals of doing stem cell research?

Answer: The three major goals usually cited for pursuing this research are: the gaining of important scientific knowledge about embryonic development and its application to related fields; curing debilitating diseases, e.g., Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, stroke, spinal cord injuries, bone diseases, etc.; and screening drugs for pharmaceutical companies, instead of having to rely on animal models.

Question: Are all kinds of stem cell research ethical?

Answer: Most commentators agree that the use of stem cells derived from adult human beings are ethically acceptable (assuming other ethical parameters are met). The major point of disagreement involves the use of stem cells derived from early human embryos and aborted fetuses.

Most of those "pro" human embryonic and fetal stem cell research use utilitarian ethical arguments as justification: it is ethically acceptable - even morally required - to destroy a few human beings in order to possibly benefit millions of patients. Besides, these cells do not cause the same immuno-incompatibility problems after transplantation as do adult stem cells from different patients. Further, these early cells from human embryos and fetuses are MORE "totipotent" and "pluripotent" than adult stem cells, and therefore they can be "coaxed" to become more different kinds of tissues, and can last longer in culture awaiting use. Besides, these fetuses and left-over IVF-produced human embryos are going to die anyway, so "we might as well get some good use out of them".

In response, opponents of human embryonic stem cell research identify the major ethical problem as the source of those cells. Living human embryos, who are the most vulnerable of human beings, must be destroyed in the process of taking their stem cells out of their bodies for this research, and it is never ethically acceptable to intentionally kill any innocent human being - no matter how small, even if the "possible benefit" is to the "many". Nor is it ever permissible to do evil that good may come of it. Given that the goals cited by the proponents are laudable and good, the means to those goals must also be ethically good - and here the "means" used in these experiments are the death and destruction of living innocent human beings. It is to reduce them to mere objects for the use of others, rather than subjects with inherent ethical rights deserving of equal protection. Our own slavery laws, Nazi medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and recent government-sponsored radiation experiments also operated on such a two-tier caste of "humanity". And 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". They also note that fetal cord blood cells have already proven successful, and the use of adult stem cells from the same ill patient would by-pass the medical crisis of immuno-incompatibility. Even foreign adult stem cells can be treated with drugs to "hide" the guilty antigens. New drugs like telomerase can keep these cells growing in culture indefinitely, and new hormones like growth factors are being successfully used to encourage cell specialization. Most critically, even adult stem cells can be "coaxed" to become less specialized (less differentiated), and can even provide cell types distinct from their own usual fate (as already mentioned). Finally, adult stem cells are already closer to the kinds of cells that patients already need. So there is really no need to use human embryonic stem cells at all. This has been acknowledged by major researchers, companies, and massive numbers of medical research journal articles recently published in this field.

Question: Is it legal to do stem cell research?

Answer: The use of adult stem cells is already legal; however, the use of human embryonic and some fetal stem cells is not.

Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Embryo Research Panel approved human embryo research in 1994, there has been a Congressional ban against the use of federal funds for it since then. This January the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) ruled that stems cells obtained from embryos are not in themselves embryos, and therefore human embryonic stem cell research does not fall under the Congressional ban - regardless of the sources (private or public) of the cells. It also implies that "spare" embryos could not become human beings because they do not have the "potential" to develop to live birth. Therefore the government should fund this research.

However, opponents point out that the present Congressional ban specifically precludes destroying human embryos for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death..." (Sec. 511 of Pub. L. No. 105-277) - which thus should include any embryos produced in either private or public facilities. Clearly there is moral complicity of intent and cooperation, regardless if the source is private. Therefore it is irrelevant whether or not a stem cell is "not an embryo". The point is rather that stem cells are obtained by destroying living human embryos. They also refute the scientific accuracy of the definitions of "embryo" and "human being" used by DHHS.

The use of some aborted fetuses as sources of stem cells is also rejected. Present federal regulations prohibit live aborted fetuses from being used in experiments, regardless of whether they are expected to survive to live birth (Section 511 of Pub.L. No. 105-277). Nor may fetal tissue be taken from live aborted fetuses; nor may the abortion be influenced in any way by the needs of scientific researchers for any reasons (42 USC Sec.289g-1).

In addition to these arguments, many objectors to this research base their concerns on fundamental Christian principles. Scripture assures us that every human being is made in the image of God from whom we receive our dignity and rights, and from whom we have been promised constant love, protection and guidance. We may not turn the most innocent and most vulnerable human beings into sacrificial lambs for the sake of others, nor weigh only the ends and not also the means.

In September the National Bioethics Advisory Committee (NBAC) recommended that "human embryos deserve respect as human life", but by using a utilitarian calculus they sanctioned federal funding of their destruction for research. In early October the Senate passed its version of the HHS bill with no restrictions on stem cell research; however, the House has postponed its decision for now. Opponents are urging Congress to specifically include human embryonic stem cell research in the Congressional ban, and instead fund needed research using ethical means, including adult stem cells and other treatments already demonstrated to work successfully.

End Notes

1 Written on request of Fr. Thomas King, S.J., Ph.D., Department of Theology, Georgetown University; President, University Faculty For Life, for their newsletter, "UFL Pro-Vita". [Back]

2 Dr. Irving is a former career-appointed research biochemist/biologist (NIH), as well as a Ph.D. philosopher specializing in the history of philosophy, and medical ethics. She is representing the Catholic Medical Association and the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations this October at the Guadalupan Appeal Conference in Mexico City on "The dignity and status of the human embryo", where she will present, "The role of correct science in the formation of conscience and the moral decision making process". [Back]

3 For extensive coverage of stem cell research, see (and join!): "Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics", on the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity website: http://www.stemcellresearch.org/index.html; see also the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' web site: http://www.nccbuscc.org. [Back]


nov 31/Jul/00