Embryonic stem cell research

The issue of embryonic stem cells has been discussed in this forum before, here, here and here. Ongoing current events, however, make this issue salient for another examination.

In my opinion, the current debate over embryonic stem cell research has focused too much on the expected benefits of the research, and not enough on the moral implications for early human life. By embryonic stem cell research, I mean research involving stem cells that are obtained by killing human embryos, however those embryos were created or obtained.

Embryonic stem cell research is based on a parallel ethical logic to abortion: that the moral value of early human life is contingent upon the will of those responsible for it. In the case of abortion, the justification for withholding full moral regard for the early human life is based on the compelling concerns of the woman whose body houses that life; in the case of embryonic stem cell research, it is based on the compelling concerns of the sick and afflicted of society. Yet in either case the value of the early human lives is dismissed in favor of the choices of those who are responsible for them.

It is true that there are many embryos now in existence that may never be allowed the opportunity to grow and develop. This is a moral dilemma. But would we justify killing a patient earlier in order to learn something, however great the knowledge might be, just because that patient would eventually die anyway? This is inconsistent with the ethics of medicine through the centuries, as well as the understanding that mankind is created in the image of God.

As a physician, I am well aware of the suffering and need for relief of patients with cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and other diseases. I believe that it is likely that research involving stem cells from umbilical cord blood or from adult tissue, research that does not involve the destruction of embryos, could achieve results similar to research involving embryonic stem cells. But even if it turned out embryonic stem cell research was the only way to achieve relief for these patients, an unlikely event, I do not think that this would justify killing early human life.
The current debacle of scientific fraud involving a fabrication of human cloning by somatic nuclear transfer in Korea, with the hype and celebrity status of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk and his team that preceded the fraud, is one illustration of the distortions that have occurred in this field among scientists and the general public. See

Of course, most scientists working in this area are not guilty of fraud. The most careful and honest ones say that any benefit from embryonic stem cell research is many years, if not decades in the future, and that it is possible that the same benefits could be achieved through other means. Yet they also argue for pursuing the avenue of embryonic stem cell research because of their thirst for knowledge, the desire to maximize the possible benefits of all avenues of research, and the justification that we need not respect the life of these individual human embryos or consider them as human organisms, but rather we can use them as biologic building material, allowing their lives to be taken to benefit the lives of others.

In my judgment, these justifications are not sufficient. To promote embryonic stem cell research is to justify the killing of individual human embryos. Even for a most worthy cause this is morally unacceptable. If the value and purpose of early human life are made dependent upon the subjective judgment of scientists, however noble their aims, humanity is headed for grave moral difficulties.

24 comments for “Embryonic stem cell research

  1. If a stem cell line could be made from a cell removed from a morula (that was later implanted), would you find that equally as objectionable? What if the embryo were genetically altered so that human development was blocked?

    Of course I believe we should welcome children into the world and not delibrately choose to abort them except under rare circumstances. And if we can find a better solution that does not destory embryos, that would be great. But in my mind, excessive worrying about the status of embryos is looking beyond the mark.

  2. “But in my mind, excessive worrying about the status of embryos is looking beyond the mark.”

    This isn’t argument, its the dismissal of argument.

  3. Is it possible to do stem cell research on embryos that have recently died? To me the morality of such a situation would be similar to the use of cadavers- perfectly okay, as long as there is the proper respect, and the person wasn’t killed just so that they could be used as a cadaver.

  4. “its the dismissal of argument”

    I call it an opinion; I don’t think I advertised it as anything else.

    I remain unconvinced that an embryo constitutes an individual. Not only is there plasticity enough for a single embryo to give rise to multiple individuals, embryos can fuse to become one person. I have trouble believing that under normal circumstances any particular spirit is assigned at this stage. Furthermore by Dr. Stanford’s own definition the state of pregnancy does not exist until the embryo is transfered to a woman’s body.

    The reason I brought up the morula is because it is my understanding that it is not uncommon for an IVF morula to have a cell removed for genetic analysis. That cell (a blastomere) has the ability to form a new embryo. Can this logically constitute the killing of a twin?

    I do not yet believe, nor do we have any revelation, that ESC research would prevent any child of God’s participation in mortality. I am therefore not opposed to ESC research. Of course the research should be conducted under appropriate ethical guidelines.

    That’s my basic argument. Feel free to dismiss it. ;-)

  5. “HELLO? Hot button issue and only three comments? What’s wrong with you people? ”

    I doubt I’m the only one that’s tired of the tone of this authors articles.

  6. I don’t think it’s that JJohnson. I just think that all the posts (and there have been a number of them) rely on to me some questionable assumptions. I brought up my point in one of the threads – that is how we can consider a set of cells without a spirit a full human being rather than a part ala a heart.

    When the premises are so far removed, at what point does conversation become impossible? At what point does one simply end up repeating the same responses? It becomes somewhat boring.

    I think that our bodies belong to us. So the ethical debate is a debate about ownership of parts and not about what is or isn’t human.

  7. “I think that our bodies belong to us. So the ethical debate is a debate about ownership of parts and not about what is or isn’t human.”

    Clark, I fail to see how there can be any “us,” as used in your first sentence, without first determining “what is or isn’t human,” as rejected in your second sentence. Only by assuming you already know who is human can you purport to know who the “owners” are, but that’s circular.

  8. Matt, I’m arguing that the question of human and the question of who are separate. For Mormons the question of who is determined by the spirit.

  9. Julie, this is a topic where seeminly unending debate has helped me, at least, better understand both positions, so that there’s not much left to say. As Matt once explained, he believes that embryos are the equivalent to human beings, and acorns are equivalent to oak trees. If you take that position, then many other things follow logically from it. In my case, no argument can convince me that embryos or acorns are equivalent to human beings or oak trees, so I have no objection to day-after contraception, rigorously and respectfully conducted stem cell research, and so on. Since our respective positions won’t change, and since I understand where the basic disagreement lies, there’s nothing much left to say.

    So I think we’ve taken the debate as far as it can go over what one should or should not do to embryos, if they are or aren’t the equivalents of human beings. On the other hand, there might still be fertile ground for railing and calumny in the debate over what one should or should not do to human beings, if they are or aren’t the equivalents of embryos.

  10. Clark,

    I agree that for many, and probably most Mormons, the question of what is a human being is enscribed in the class of “human bodies with a spirit.”


    To make sure you understand my position and aren’t rejecting a strawman, let me correct the way you’ve outlined the argument on trees and acorns. The argument isn’t that an acorn is a tree; acorns aren’t trees. The argument is that an oak acorn is just as much an oak as is an oak tree. Both oak acorns and oak trees are distinct and unique members of their species within the genus Quercus; the only difference between an oak tree and the oak acorn it used to be is its stage of development.

    In the same way, no one argues that a human embryo is a human adult (the equivalent of acorns and trees), but that both have equal claim to the label “unique member of the species homo sapiens.” The argument, therefore, isn’t that human embryos are the “equivalent” of human beings, but that they are human beings as much as you and I. Or, stated another way, you and I became distinct members of the species homo sapiens when we were embryos.

    Lots of people have tried to restrict the class of “human being” to “member of the species homo sapiens plus X,” though there’s been little to no consensus on the substance of X that gives a member of the species its moral worth. Mormons who subscribe to this this theory that not all members of the species homo sapiens are human beings most frequently argue that X is the spirit, and that some members of the human species don’t have spirits.

    Hope that clears up the misunderstanding.

  11. Matt, there is no misunderstanding. I know what you believe. You’ve explained it quite clearly before. I simply believe that you’re wrong, and explaining yourself more clearly will not change that. Neither you nor I are going to change our minds. Therefore, there’s not much left to say.

  12. Jonathan, just to highlight the point of our agreeable disagreement: I believe all members of the species homo sapiens are human beings; you believe only some members of the species homo sapiens are human beings.

  13. Matt,

    I realize this will just keep the argument going, but for clarification’s sake: what Jonathan actually wrote was “no argument can convince me that embryos or acorns are equivalent to human beings or oak trees”; I assume he used the word “equivalent” as opposed to simply saying that he didn’t believe they “are” human beings or oak trees is because he wanted to acknowledge their nature while denying what some may say follows from their nature, or what that nature meaningfully amounts to. In other words, I read him as saying, using your own terminology, “I believe that human embryos and human adults are both members of the species homo sapiens, but I do not believe that an embryo’s homo sapien nature mandates the same treatment as an adult’s homo sapien nature.” I doubt you two disagree on who or what is, actually, biologically human; I presume you disagree on what the various stages of biological humanity make, or don’t make, incumbent upon others. Or in even fewer words, I suspect you disagree fundamentally on duties and persons and rights, not DNA.

    If I’ve gotten you all wrong, Jonathan, feel free to slap me around.

  14. Matt (#11), I think I’m saying something far radical than that. I’m saying that a spirit independent of the body is a human being and that a mortal body is at best a useful part akin to our hand. i.e. I’m suggesting that the whole approach taken to the question makes no sense in Mormonism simply because our notion of pre-existence means that the historic sense of “humanness” must be divorced from the body. At best the body can supply a certain mode of being human. But in limiting the discussion to that level, one can say the same about many aspects of our body. So that having legs allows a different mode or manifestation of being human than not having legs.

    It seems to me that this has huge implications for all these discussions here of late.

  15. Just to add to my comments, consider the question of when human life begins. It doesn’t begin. It always has been. The relevant question vis a vis fetuses then isn’t when life begins but when does one human being become possessor of the fetus. A very different concern closer in context to property law.

  16. Russell,

    If one grants that human embryos are members of the human race, then to deny their full moral worth yet believe in universal human equality requires one to admit that being a member of the human race is insufficient for human dignity, and that the locus of human dignity is founded in a secondary characteristic shared by some but not all humanity.


    Of course human life begins. It makes no more sense to say human life doesn’t begin than to say it doesn’t end, and the church holds funerals and church disciplinary councils for murderers precisely because human lives end. Our mortality/second estate/probationary period is bounded with a beginning and an end.

  17. Mortality has a beginning and and end Matt, and when we speak of life and death of that sort we speak of entering and exiting mortality. But what that consists of is actually a change of location of the human being and not its cessation.

  18. Clark, no one here disputes the eternal nature of the spirit, so let’s specify, when discussing the moral status of human embryos, that one of the relevant ethical issues is when “mortal” human life begins.

  19. “…the locus of human dignity is founded in a secondary characteristic shared by some but not all humanity.”

    Right. In other words, it’s a rejection of morality as premised wholly and solely upon a particular holistic conception of nature or “natural law,” and an embrace of morality as premised at least in part on specific, willed constructions, whether they be divine edicts (as we understand them) or human conclusions (however worked out).

    Again, I may have Jonathan wrong here. Moreover, I’m not endorsing this rather simplistic description as complete; both sides of the argument are much more complicated than this. But I do agree that, fundamentally, this is what the disagreement it comes down to–not a dispute over biology per se, but a dispute over what must morally follow from the bare facts of biology.

  20. Russell,

    I don’t understand how “willed constructions” (or natural law or the other concepts you mention) enter the moral calculus, given that the universe can be divided into ontological “neighbors” and “non-neighbors,” and the impossibility of constructing one from the other. The moral question is settled (we must love our neighbors) and the only remaining question is the emphatically ontological “And who is my neighbor?”

  21. Keep up the good work, Russell. I commented somewhere that I knew you could say things better than I could, and I thought I made that comment here–but maybe I posted it in some other thread by mistake, or maybe I really confused some small subset of Slashdot readers. Lately I’ve been too busy with a baptism to engage the argument, and my original point is that I don’t want to engage it. I’ve been through it before, I don’t agree with the conclusion that embryos are human beings, the end. One way to show respect for Matt is to retire from the field until I have something new to add to the argument, another way is to engage his argument, which I’m happy to see you doing. Keep up the good work.

  22. Matt (#19), I think you’re missing my point. You want to focus on the question of “when” whereas the fundamental question has, in my mind, not be asked typically in these discussions. We retain the Catholic and most Protestants approach to the question and simply change the question of “when.” But what I’m asserting is that the fundamental issue isn’t the question of “when” but the question of “what.” That is, what is the relationship between body and human being? Especially if we were a human being before the uniting together of body and spirit.

    My claim, which I’ve not yet seen addressed, is that the relationship is better seen as akin to a part of my body to the whole rather than a question of whether one is a human being (the way it is usually taken).

  23. Clark, “what” and “when” is a distinction without a difference. If we can answer “who” (“what”) our neighbors are, we will know “when” a human organism is our neighbor, and vice versa. At some point (when) a physical form becomes our neighbor (what). That’s the question we’re grappling with, either way we frame it.

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