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Right-To-Life Party, Christian, Anti-War, Pro-Life, Bible Fundamentalist, Egalitarian, Libertarian Left

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Ethically Wrong Treatment of the Tiniest of Humans

As the United States enters the new millennium, our technologically rich society takes with it extraordinary advances in human healing and health care, specifically in the area of organ and tissue transplantation and development. In their zeal to cure devastating diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, some researchers have taken part in morally and ethically wrong research by destroying human embryos1 through "human embryonic stem cell research." This research is the source of much controversy inside and outside the medical community.

Upon closer examination, though, it becomes clear that destroying embryos is unnecessary because of the remarkable alternatives that have been found. The exciting progress of tissue and organ development should not and need not be stopped, but the morally unacceptable practice of killing human embryos must end immediately. Appropriate research can yield cures for diseases and relief from suffering without compromising any moral standards.


In the quest to find cells to repair damaged tissue, such as tissue in the brain afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, medical researchers have been investigating the possibility of embryonic cells to produce these needed reparative, or "stem," cells. Five to seven days after an egg has been fertilized, "the embryo forms a structure called a blastocyst. Consisting of merely 140 cells, this hollow, fluid-filled sphere is made up of two types of cells: Those which form the ‘shell’ of the sphere and those located within the ‘shell.’"3 The cells located in the "inner" part are the embryonic stem cells that must be removed in order to do research, effectively destroying the embryo.

Stem cells are at the forefront of medical research because of their ability to divide and produce more cells of a specific type. As the Clinton administration’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) explained in its report, "Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research:"

The stem cell is a unique and essential cell type found in animals. Many kinds of stem cells are found in the body with some more differentiated, or committed, to a particular function than others. In other words, when stem cells divide, some of the progeny mature into cells of a specific type (e.g., heart, muscle, blood, or brain cells) while others remain stem cells, ready to repair some of the everyday wear and tear undergone by our bodies. These stem cells are capable of continually reproducing themselves and serve to renew tissue throughout an individual’s life.3

The problem exists then, not in researching these special cells, but the method by which researchers obtain the stem cells from embryos. The only way to harvest the cells is by killing the embryo.

Since 1996, Congress has prohibited researchers from using federal funds for human embryo stem cell research. Currently, the law states under Section 511 of the Labor/HHS Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 1999:4

None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for:

the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or

research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR §46.208 (a)(2) and Section 498 (b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 USC §289g(b)).

For purposes of this section, the term "human embryo or embryos" includes any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR §46 as of the date of enactment of this Act, that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid cells.

As stated clearly in section (a), this ban, also known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment for Representatives Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), specifically prohibits the use of embryos that were created or killed for the sole purpose of research.5 Federal researchers most commonly obtain stem cells from embryos retrieved from fertility clinics. Embryos that are deemed unsuitable or unnecessary (and are thus scheduled for disposal) are given to researchers as "left-over" embryos. Currently, no laws prohibit private research from creating embryos expressly to harvest the stem cells.

Despite the 1996 law, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced on January 15, 1999, that the federal government may fund research on human embryonic stem cells harvested from embryos which are destroyed for purposes of research. Using a "legal" definition, HHS lawyers defended this decision by saying "that human embryonic stem cells are not a human embryo within the statutory definition" because "the cells do not have the capacity to develop into a human being even if transferred to the uterus, thus their destruction in the course of research would not constitute the destruction of an embryo."6 Under this interpretation, human embryonic stem cell research would not be subject to the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, and federal money could be allocated to embryonic research. The HHS interpretation prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to write new guidelines outlining the use of embryonic stem cells in research under full government funding.7

The technical interpretation given by the HHS is unacceptable because the claim that stem cells do not have embryonic qualities is not medically supported. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD) explains:

Some evidence suggests that stem cells cultured in the laboratory may have a tendency to recongregate and form an aggregate of cells capable of beginning to develop as an embryo. In 1993, Canadian scientists reported that they successfully produced a live-born mouse from a cluster of mouse stem cells. While it is true that these stem cells had to be wrapped in placenta-like cells in order to implant in a female mouse, it seems that at least some doubt has been cast on the claim that a cluster of stem cells is not embryonic in nature.8

The doubt research has raised on the "non-embryonic nature" of stem cells should give rise to a greater consideration to stem cells as human beings. Without being certain, in at least a medical sense, that stem cells have no embryonic possibilities, the HHS and the NIH should give the benefit of the doubt to human life. The CBHD concluded its assessment by saying, "It would be irresponsible for the HHS to conduct and condone human embryonic stem cell research without first discerning the status of these cells."9

Violation of Law

According to the CBHD’s "Statement on Human Embryos and Stem Cell Research": "If the flawed rationales of HHS are accepted, federally funded researchers may soon be able to experiment on stem cells obtained by destroying embryonic human beings, so long as the act of destruction does not itself receive federal funds."10 The HHS interpretation makes a distinction between destroying the embryo and using embryos that were destroyed, thereby allowing research on human embryos with taxpayer dollars. However, even the Clinton administration’s NBAC denies that this distinction is valid, as is evident by the following statement in its May 6, 1999, Draft Report on Stem Cell Research:

Whereas researchers using fetal tissue are not responsible for the death of the fetus, researchers using stem cells derived from embryos will typically be implicated in the destruction of the embryo. This is true whether or not researchers participate in the derivation of embryonic stem cells. As long as embryos are destroyed as part of the research enterprise, researchers using embryonic stem cells (and those who fund them) will be complicit in the death of embryos.11

The HHS interpretation and the NIH guidelines clearly violate both the spirit and the letter of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Federal funding for the destruction of embryos is a violation of U.S. law and should not be allowed under any circumstances.

Ethical Considerations

The most important aspect of the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in research is the fact that killing embryos for research purposes is unethical. Speaking out against the unethical practices of embryonic stem cell research, Dónal P. O’Mathúna, Ph.D., a fellow at CBHD, said, "Human embryos are living human beings in their earliest stage of development. They don’t have to be viewed as human persons for us to realize they are more than just biological specimens. [Even] a 1994 National Institutes of Health Panel concluded they ought to be treated with ‘profound respect.’"12 The CBHD reported that "an international scientific consensus now recognizes that human embryos are biologically human beings beginning at fertilization, and acknowledges the physical continuity of human growth and development from the one-cell stage forward."13 Human embryos are humans—and therefore, persons—and when an embryo is destroyed, a human life is extinguished.

Beyond the controversy surrounding the "personhood" of embryonic life, all concerned parties must recognize that human embryos are not simply tissue to be researched. The underlying utilitarian belief that some humans need to be sacrificed for the betterment of others is morally and ethically wrong. The rationale used to justify the destruction of embryos for advancements in medical research and development is the same rationale used to justify the syphilis experiments conducted on African-Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama. This same utilitarian justification was used in the medical research Nazi doctors performed in Dachau and Aushwitz. Human beings, at any stage of development, should not be drafted for research without their permission—no matter what the supposed justification.14 Furthermore, "even if an individual’s death is believed to be otherwise imminent, we still do not have a license to engage in lethal experimentation, just as we may not experiment on death row prisoners or harvest their organs without their consent."15 The moral and ethical problems of embryonic stem cell research make its continuation unacceptable. The moral consequence of compromising the life of a human being does not and cannot outweigh potential medical benefits in the future.


Prohibiting the use of embryos does not mean stem cell research will end. Recent research on adult stem cells has proven to be just as promising, if not more so, than embryonic stem cell research. Medical research must continue in the area of cell and tissue development, and it is possible with the use of promising alternatives to embryonic research.

Stem cells are not just found in the earliest stages of human development, but exist within the adult human body as well. While researchers once thought that the adult stem cell could only reproduce its own kind of cell, new research has shown that the adult stem cells have the same embryonic capacity to become different cells and tissues.16 It is this special capacity that makes stem cells so promising in the field of reparative cell research.

The December 1999 issue of Science reported that, in 1999, researchers made the astonishing discovery that stem cells found in adult tissues "retain the ability to become several different types of tissues: brain cells can become blood cells and cells from bone marrow can become liver." Furthermore,

In January [1999], Italian and U.S. scientists reported that stem cells taken from the brains of mice could take up residence in the bloodstream and bone marrow and become mature blood cells. … Many scientists initially balked at that idea, but a string of new results seem to back it up. Texas researchers found just a few weeks ago that muscle stem cells could become blood cells, for example. Other scientists reported that stem cells found in rat bone marrow could become liver cells. … And this fall, Pennsylvania scientists reported that mouse marrow cells injected into the brains of newborn mice could develop into brain cells.17

The broad differentiation (or ability to develop into various tissues) available to adult stem cells is important to understanding the extraordinary possibilities adult stem cells have to offer. The overwhelming evidence from the scientific community is that the new discoveries in adult stem cell development rival the development previously found only in embryonic stem cells. Scientific American reported in April 1999:

Researchers are a long way from being able to manipulate embryonic stem cells in culture to produce fully differentiated cells that can be used to create or repair specific organs. A more immediate goal would be to isolate so-called progenitor cells from tissues. Such progenitors have taken some of the steps toward becoming specialized, but because they are not yet fully differentiated they stay flexible enough to replenish several different cells.18

The exciting advancements in adult stem cell research have many medical implications for people suffering from a variety of diseases. Bone marrow cells have been manipulated to divide and produce liver cells, giving hope to patients with fulminant hepatic failure, a condition where the liver is unable to repair itself. The new liver cells could also help alleviate other diseases of the liver and decrease the need for liver transplants.19 Scientists at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital have carried out successful research on neural stem cells, giving promise to new advances in the cure for diseases of the central nervous system.20 Researchers found that adult stem cells are able to regenerate after a stroke21 and also show potential to promote the growth of the hormone insulin for diabetics.22 Promising new stem cell research to replace bone marrow destroyed by chemotherapy in cancer patients, eliminating the need for dangerous bone marrow transplants, is underway.23 New discoveries continue to flourish in the area of tissue regeneration from stem cells. As Angelo Vescovi of the National Neurological Institute in Milan, Italy, pointed out, "If the research can be replicated in humans, it could make it easier to grow large batches of stem cells to treat various conditions, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease. … You may be able to use your own stem cells to make new tissue."24

One of the most exciting aspects to adult stem cell research is the advantage it may have over embryonic stem cell research. Because adult stem cells are retrieved from the patient, any development of cells or tissue that may occur outside the body would not be rejected if implanted back into the body. For example, if bone marrow stem cells were taken out of a patient, multiplied in the laboratory, and then given back to the patient, it would circumvent the risk of rejection that embryonic stem cells may pose.25 This advantage could be a major medical breakthrough for people in need of organ and tissue transplants. Another important advantage of adult stem cells is the presence of "precursor" cells, or cells that have already been committed to becoming one type of cell. The Wall Street Journal reported that:

While precursor cell’s morphing potential is narrower, many scientists believe that turning them into medical treatments will be much easier, because they are further along in their development. That opens up a whole world of potential injectable therapies that would harness the body’s capacity to regenerate itself. "If you’re trying to travel from Boston to San Francisco, this would be the equivalent of starting in Des Moines instead of Boston," says Mitchell J. Weiss, a senior scientist at Ontogeny Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts.26

The possibilities for adult stem cell research are becoming realities as researchers continue to find ways that adult stem cells are just as useful, if not more so, in treating the sick with regenerative cells. We should continue to support adult stem cell research, within ethical and moral boundaries, for the purpose of eradicating life-threatening diseases for the betterment of all humans.

Scientific Advancement That Protects All Humans

Embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary and unacceptable as a form of medical advancement. The destruction of human embryos in the harvesting of stem cells is illegal under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Therefore, the National Institutes of Health must adhere to that guideline. The creation or killing of an embryo for research purposes is ethically wrong and needless, in light of new advancements found in the research of adult stem cells. As the British Medical Journal said in January 1999, "The need for fetal cells as a source of stem cells for medical research may soon be eclipsed by the more readily available and less controversial adult stem cells." Federal funding should support the exciting new field of adult stem cell research to combat diseases, rather than the death of the tiniest of humans for unwarranted research.

Hannah M. Vick
End Notes

The American Medical Association’s online Medical Glossary defines "embryo" as "a term used to describe a child in the womb from fertilization [‘the joining of an egg and a sperm’] to eight weeks following fertilization."
Shirley J. Wright, "Human embryonic stem-cell research: science and ethics," American Scientist 87, no. 4 (1 July 1999): 352.
National Bioethics Advisory Commission, "Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research," Executive Summary (Rockville, MD: September 1999) 1.
Letter from Mark DeYoung, Director of Public Policy Initiatives, American Life League, to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), 17 September 1999.
Rick Weiss, "NIH to Fund Controversial Research on Human Stem Cells," The Washington Post, 20 January 1999, A2.
The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD), "On Human Embryos and Stem Cell Research: An Appeal for Legally and Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy," Congressional Packet and Statement, 1 July 1999, 5.
Ibid, 2.
Dónal P. O’Mathúna, "The unethical in stem-cell research," Akron Beacon Journal, 14 August 1999, A9.
CBHD, 3.
Ibid, 4.
Ricki Lewis, "Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells Differentiate in the Lab," The Scientist 13, no. 8 (12 April 1999): 1.
Gretchen Vogel, "Capturing the Promise of Youth," Science 286 (17 December 1999): 2239.
Robert S. Langer and Joseph P. Vacanti, "Tissue Engineering: The Challenges Ahead," Scientific American, April 1999, 86.
B.E. Peterson, et al., "Bone Marrow as a Potential Source of Hepatic Oval Cells," Science 284, no. 5417 (14 May 1999): 1168-70.
Evan Snyder, "Global Cell Replacement Uses Neural Stem Cells," UniSci, Daily University Science News, 8 June 1999.
Frank Sharp, "Rodent Brain Stem Cells Regenerate After Stroke," UniSci, 8 February 1999.
Andrew F. Stewart, M.D., et al., "Hepatocyte Growth Factor Overexpression in the Islet of Trangenic Mice Increases Beta Cell Proliferation, Enhances Islet Mass, and Induces Mild Hypoglycemia," The Journal of Biological Chemistry 275, no. 2 (14 January 2000): 1226-32.
Charlene Laino, "Designer stem cells may make chemotherapy more tolerable," MSNBC.com, 17 May 1999.
Associated Press/Reuters, "Brain cells take on different role," MSNBC.com, 21 January 1999.
Reuters, "Stem cells grown outside the body," MSNBC.com, 6 July 1999.
Laura Johannes, "Adult Stem Cells Have Advantage Battling Disease," The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 1999, B1.

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