Embryonic stem cells hold a unique self-renewal ability and developmental possibility to differentiate into any cell type of an organism. Since the introduction of stem cell research, ethical issues have hindered advancement in stem cell research. Ethical issues rose mainly due to the derivation of human embryonic stem cells from surplus in vitro fertilised blastocysts and strong opposing religious views. The key argument focus’s on the value of human life at its commencement. Critics who argue against the destruction of a blastocyst believe it is equal to murder. On the contrary, how is it that embryos can have the same moral status as humans as they are unable of existing outside the mother’s womb? Loss of embryos is an inevitable consequence seen in normal pregnancy but also in vitro fertilisation. Is it not better to then utilise such a resource in finding new therapies and cure for devastating conditions.
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In this essay I will be arguing the moral status of embryonic stem cells for and against. I will be discussing different religious views regarding embryonic stem cells as well as other, personal and socio-ethical views. I will be considering how an embryo cultured in laboratory to have the same moral status as a person; this can be disputed on many grounds. In this essay I will consider the status of human embryonic stem cells, specifically whether embryonic stem cells should be measured equal to embryos or not. Furthermore I will be discussing on the suitability and acceptance of using pre-implantation embryos as a source of stem cell research. I will consider whether the source of stem cells for research purpose should be limited to spare embryos or whether it is acceptable for creation of embryos.
1.1 What are Human Embryonic Stem Cells?
Stem cells are unique unspecialised cells capable of regenerating themselves infinitely through mitosis and can also differentiate into mature cells with specialised function. There are various types of stem cells available for research; these are human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, in this essay we are primarily concerned with hESC’s.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from early stage embryo. Fertilisation of an ovum by sperm results in a zygote, which is the earliest stage of the embryo. After 5-6 days of fertilisation and more cycles of cell division, cells specialise into blastocyst. The outer layer of the blastocyst is called the trophoblast, and the clusters of cells inside the blastocyst are called the inner cell mass. The cells of the inner cell mass are the pluripotent stem cells that give rise to all cell types of major tissue layers of the embryo. It is possible to extract stem cells from the inner cell mass of blastocysts in an undifferentiated state in cell culture lines in laboratory (Bethesda, 2002). To be used in the line of medical therapies, researchers are studying on how embryonic stem cells need to be differentiated into appropriate tissues for transplantation in patients, and many cases are available whereby it has successfully been achieved. Culturing cells in the laboratory requires an isolation of cells from the pre-implantation stage embryo into a culture dish consisting of a nutrient enriched broth. The dish is coated in the inner surface with mouse embryonic skin cells, which has been treated to ensure that they will not divide or differentiate (Blair, 2011). The procedure of producing an embryonic stem cell is inefficient therefore not all transfer of cells into a culture dish is successful. However if successfully established, the original cells may give yield to millions of embryonic stem cells. If grown under the appropriate conditions, they have the potential to remain unspecialised for a prolonged period of time; such cells are known as mentioned already, pluripotent. In research the embryos are those from in vitro fertilisation clinics, whereby a number of eggs are fertilised in a test tube, however only one is implanted into a woman and the remaining fertilised eggs are used for stem cell research and therapy. (Sarkar, 2009, Cherian et al., 2011)
2.0 Ethical Concerns regarding Embryonic Stem Cells
The fundamental ethical issue in question regarding human embryonic stem cell research surrounds around the value of the embryo, leading to controversy in stem cell research primarily concerning the creation, treatment, and destruction of human embryos incident to research involving embryonic stem cells. Stem cell research does not always involve the use of human embryos. Other types of stem cells such as, adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells can be used without the involvement of creating, or destruction of human embryos (Harris, 2001). Many ethical issues lead to various questions that arise. Is it acceptable to destroy embryos for research, to save one life for another? Do embryonic stem cells have the same equivalence to embryos or are they simply thought of as cells? The critics of stem cell research may argue that despite its valuable breakthroughs, stem cell research is still in their eyes, deemed as wrong as it involves the destruction of human embryos, which they believe should have the same moral status of a human being. Others may worry that it will open the way to untrustworthy practices, and has been described as Nazi medical experimentation. (Sandel, 2004, Scanke, 2009)
3.0 The Moral Status of Human Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) research has promised the potential to overcome a wide range of human illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, spinal injury, diabetes etc. However human ESC research has been scrutinised intensely by the various moral questions and from ethical investigation. These moral questions have risen as a result of where ESC’s are obtained from, as mentioned earlier, we know that ESC’s are located from the inner cell mass of blastocysts of early aborted fetuses and in order to obtain ESC’s one would have to destroy the embryos first, this leads to an important moral question on the status of human embryo. There is no scientific evidence yet to verify infinitely that human embryos hold a degree of “personhood”, views on its morality are based on religious, personal and socio-ethical concerns, which is a broad range of views very strongly held.(Sandel, 2004, Scanke, 2009, JOURNAL, 2007)
3.1 What is the Religious Viewpoint on ESC Research?
Religion provides a foundation from which to structure an ethical debate. We will look into the stance of Catholicism, Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam and Protestantism. Catholic church sees embryos as a form of human life with moral status of fully developed human, thus ESC research should be in their view prohibited. The Jewish scientist and theologians are strong promoters of ESC research using cells derived from aborted fetuses for medical therapies. The Jewish belief is we have a requirement to preserve life and health. The eastern orthodox also supports ESC research however only from cells from certain sources, not of those cells from aborted fetuses or embryos created specifically for research. Islam ethicists believe ESC research is acceptable on both aborted embryos and blastocysts created specifically for research purpose for greater benefits. The Islamic view has the greatest tolerance on ESC research. However one limitation is that cells obtained must not attain “ensoulment”. Majority of Muslim scholars agree that ensoulment occurs in about 120 days after conception, there are some scholars in the minority that hold that it occurs in about 40 days after conception.
Lastly the protestants have a wide view on ESC research, with some supporting the outright ban whereas there are others that support research on cells obtained from discarded embryos at fertilisation clinics or fetuses aborted for therapeutic reasons is acceptable. (Robeznieks, 2003, McLaren, 2001, Juengst and Fossel, 2000)
3.2 Case Against Moral Status of Human Embryonic Stem Cells
Argument against research on ESC due to belief that from the moment of conception embryos are fully developed human being; therefore embryos should have the same rights and protections. The argument of potentiality of the embryo it self gives a right to some protection of embryos due to it’s potential to develop into a person. According to the symbolic value of the embryo, the embryo deserves to be treated with respect because it represents the beginning of human life. (Bortolotti and Harris, 2005)
The Catholic Church takes a prohibitionist stance on stem cell research of this source and is playing a key role in directing the debate on stem cell research. The church supports its arguments with a list of five points set out to argue the point that it is morally illicit to produce and/or use living human embryos for the preparation of ESC’s. The five points are as follows;
“1. On the basis of a complete biological analysis, the living human embryo is … a human subject …2. From this it follows that as a “human individual ” it has the right to its own life; ..3. Therefore, the ablation of the inner cell mass (ICM) of the blastocyst…is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicitâ€¦.4. No end believed to be good, … can justify an intervention of this kindâ€¦.5. For Catholics, this position is explicitly confirmed by the Magisterium of the Church …” (Bjornson et al., 1999)
The religious belief that ensoulment occurs at fertilisation is also argued further and to give an example in 1987, Donum Vitae, a Roman Catholic spokesperson argued “that the father’s sperm, the mother’s egg and a divinely implanted sole is crucial to the creation of a morally defensible human individual.” There are no scientific evidence to point to a definitive moment from conception to birth that symbolizes the emergence of a human person, therefore we have to hold that embryos possess the same respect and blessedness as a fully developed human being. The destruction would not only be seen as murder but also a direct offence against God’s creation. (American Fertility Society. Ethics, 1988)
There are others that believe that human ESC research is comparable to Nazi medical experimentation, uncharacteristic practices such as embryo farms, cloned babies or even the use of fetuses for spare body parts. (Sandel, 2004, Scanke, 2009) Some believe that with the availability of adult stem cells as a workable alternative, use of ESC is deemed as unnecessary.
Most opposing people believe that the human embryo has moral status of that of a human being; same way as a baby, child or an adult does, therefore embryos should have the same human rights. With this belief there is no justification for the use of human embryos for experimentation and also without the consensus of donors. Furthermore people of this opinion also believe that though there are potential benefits; destruction of blastocysts is equal to taking a human life, which is morally prohibited and unlawful. This raises the question; is taking one life for another acceptable? I believe majority of people would find it unacceptable, but also with there being a possibility of saving another life, there is no guarantee of achieving the full potential of EMC’s to save many lives yet.
3.3 Case For Moral Status of Human Embryonic Stem Cells
The people whom support ESC research differ in the opinion of their oppositions on many important grounds. Many believe the potentiality of ESC’s outweighs the ethical controversy due to the benefits obtained from ESC research and should be allowed to realise the potential of ESC research for many promises. Supporters also disagree with the moral status of the embryo, supporters refuse the Catholic Church claims and arguments of morality of embryos argued by the five points made by the church stated earlier, on the basis that; human life is not formed in the first moment of union between the embryo and gametes and therefore should not be classified as human beings.
A lot of supporters of ESC research approve the “developmental view” of moral status where, “each individual acquires different moral interests, rights and roles as he/she develops sentience, consciousness and relationships justifying these protections” (Wagers et al., 2002) and consequently moral value is thought to develop gradually (Towns and Jones, 2004). Though this outlook fails to identify a definitive time frame whereby “personhood” begins, the majority feel, in the line of the Islamic view, which is that it occurs later than the 14 days developmental time point and that is legally defined as the uppermost time limit for research.
Supporters of ESC research are keen to point out that most of the blastocysts used are derived from the excess embryos of in vitro fertilisation clinics that are used with full consent from the donors, the majority of surplus embryos left from in vitro fertilisation treatment are usually discarded. Studies in the USA in 2003 have estimated that there are surplus of 400,000 embryos; with in vitro fertilisation treatments becoming more popular, it can be assumed that the surplus of embryos left from these clinics can only be greater in the present day (Towns and Jones, 2004). Researchers in embryonic stem cells, will argue that is it not best to make use of these embryos for the greater good of coming up with new advances to heel those suffering from life threatening conditions, or simply discarding them which will give them less moral values to that of a real person. Personally I believe that allowing embryos to be used specifically to assist the process of reproduction via in vitro fertilisation is acceptable however to discard remaining viable embryos is inappropriate as it can be used to for greater causes, one being and in the heart of ethical issues, ESC research. On this issue the Catholic Church and Do No Harm Coalition believe that adult stem cells as a viable alternative to ESC’s, and ethically research with the use of adult stem cells is less controversial and raises fewer issues. It is argued “Howeverâ€¦ because of the rarity and anonymity of adult stem cells and their limited proliferation and differentiation capacity compared to embryonic, (even if plasticity is confirmed as real), at present, ESC’s offer scientists the greater opportunities for research.”(Jordan, 2006)
Those who support the use of stem cells for research generally recognize that the ethical issues of using ESC’s and that it should be given serious thought in all ethical aspect of scrutiny. Although saying that, it is in the same way significant that the consequences of not researching their potential should also be carefully considered as supporters feel that mankind can’t really afford to turn its back on any possibility of research that might be open to it. If we think about the consequences we must appreciate that there is an urgent need to be able to tackle diseases and conditions that cause undesirable continuous suffering such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer etc and stem cell research has the potential to alleviate or cure some of these problems. Opposition may feel that promises of such benefits don’t outweigh the fact that they are simply promises and that the potential may never be fulfilled. Like most part of life, mankind experiences broken promises, but if that view is essential in the view point to oppose, then that is withdrawing away from the potential worth and with most goals in life whether that is acquiring wealth, fame etc, if we are to restrict ourselves then we would fail to accomplish our goals. In the same viewpoint of ESC’s research we should allow the end goal to be achieved. ‘Eric Juengst of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the Case Western University Cleveland U.S.A develops this view and takes the debate to a position diametrically opposed to the prohibitionists’- “If any individual would intentionally restrict the development of a life saving therapy, then he/she must be willing to shoulder responsibility for the consequent deaths, Similarly, if ethicists or the public would restrict the use of ESC’s then they bear responsibility for those patients they have chosen not to save by those means” (Wagers et al., 2002, Juengst and Fossel, 2000)
There are many views regarding the moral status of human embryos, many arguments for and against the use of human embryos for ESC research, and this gives a principle platform from which researchers can carefully contemplate on how to go about carrying out their research. ESC’s will continue to poise many ethical issues; I believe this should continue as it gives an open debate from both end of the spectrum, which gives a transparent and cautious approach. On a personal view I would like the full potential of ESC research to be achieved however at the same time I believe consideration of opposing views should also be taken into account. With new advances in embryonic stem cell research, and better understanding of stem cells, ethical issues can be addressed for progression to occur and achieving the greater goal of realising how such research is helping to fulfil the moral imperative of relieving suffering.