What's wrong with Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

by Jay Johansen


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Background

When a baby is conceived, the first cells that develop are what is called "stem cells". These are cells that do not have a specific function like being part of a finger or a kidney or whatever. But as these cells reproduce, the "daughter" cells do have such specific functions. In a sense, stem cells are the "factories" that produce the cells that do the real work.

Some medical researchers believe that healthy stem cells could be implanted into a sick person, and -- with the proper techniques applied -- produce healthy cells of the appropriate type to replace dead or damaged cells in the patient.

At present, this is all in the research stage. Experts in the field generally agree that the basic idea sounds like it should or at least could work, but to date the results of experiments have been disappointing. While some sick people treated with stem cell techniques have shown improvement, the results are not statistically significant. That is, some number of sick people get well even if they get no treatment at all, and the number of sick people who have gotten well after stem cell treatments is not significantly greater than the number who could have been expected to get well on their own anyway. Some critics say that this proves the whole idea is a blind alley. Defenders reply that the research is still in the early stages, and it's not fair to demand positive results this soon.

The problem

Many people have come out in opposition to stem cell research. Why? Because the major source of stem cells for research today is embryos, and the embryos are destroyed in the process of extracting the stem cells.

What's the big deal? Genetically, an embryo is a human being. A very tiny, undeveloped human being, but a human being nonetheless. Even if stem cell treatments ultimately prove successful, embryonic stem cell treatment involves the deliberate killing of a human being in order to use his body parts to treat another human being.

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research point to all sorts of good that might result. They paint glowing pictures of the diseases that might be cured and the people who might be helped. But does this justify killing an innocent human being?

Surely we all appreciate the value of organ transplants. No one questions that many, many lives have been saved because of organ transplants, and many more have been improved in one way or another. But a continuing problem is the shortage of healthy organs available for transplant. There are long waiting lists for transplant organs. Suppose that someone suggested that this probably could be easily solved if we made it legal to kill selected people so that there organs could be "harvested". Think of all the good that could result! Why, one such person could provide dozens of organs -- a heart for this patient, two kidneys for two more, retinas, bone marrow, etc etc. Think of how many lives could be saved by one death! Wouldn't that make it worth it? And we could carefully choose the people who would be selected as donors. They could be chosen from particularly disliked groups, like minorities, the handicapped, or lawyers.

How would you react to such a proposal? That is exactly what is being proposed here. Medical researchers think that they may be able to save or improve the lives of some people by killing others. So they insist that it should be legal to kill these human beings in order to help others.

Good out of tragedy

To date, the major source of embryonic stem cells for this research has been the remains of aborted babies. This has led to an additional argument: These were babies who were going to die anyway. Their mothers were going to have abortions whether the remains were harvested for stem cells or not. So what is the harm? Abortion is a tragedy, but at least this way some good comes out of it.

Here's the harm: Deliberately killing someone in order to benefit yourself cannot be excused on the grounds that you were going to kill this person anyway. Suppose I murdered my father in order to get my inheritance sooner. Would a court say, Hey, if I had killed him in some fit or irrational rage that would have been wrong, but if I did it for money, well, it's okay then.

Or here's a closer analogy. Suppose that some militant racist group went around lynching black people. Hundreds of innocent blacks are killed. Public outrage grows. Then one day this group announces a new program: Whenever they lynch a black person, they will promptly deliver the body to the nearest hospital, where organs can be removed for transplant. Even if you don't approve of lynching or racism, they say, surely you must applaud us for this. Think of all that good that can be done. Maybe a lynching is a tragedy, but at least this way some good will come of it.

Would you find that line of argument convincing? Or would you be appalled by the callousness, the shear absurdity of it?

Indeed, one has to wonder if some of the support for this research is not motivated by a desire to justify abortion. After all, if every abortion could now potentially save lives, doesn't that make abortion a positive good? Sure it does -- just like donating the bodies of lynching victims for organ transplants makes lynching a positive good.

A side note: alternative sources

Embryos are not the only possible source of stem cells. There are stem cells in fat tissue. (And I need only look in the mirror to know that there's plenty of fat tissue around.) There are stem cells in umbilical cords. There has been some success at harvesting stem cells from these sources. At present, it is not clear if these sources are just as useful (from a technical point of view) as embryos.

The slippery slope

At least one company, the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicene of Norfolk, Virginia, is now fertilizing embryos in the laboratory using donated sperm and eggs specifically for the purpose of harvesting these embryos for stem cells. (When I say "donated", I don't mean that they were given for free. Women were paid $1200 to $2000 for their eggs. The news reports I've seen didn't mention what the men were paid for their sperm.) In other words, human beings are now being conceived for the express purpose of being killed and their body parts harvested for the benefit of others.

So okay, right now it's "just embryos". Maybe that doesn't disturb you too much. After all, embryos are very small, don't look particularly human, probably don't feel pain or have any consciousness. But ... If it becomes generally accepted that an embryo can be freely killed and harvested for parts, how long before a more developed baby in the womb can likewise be killed and harvested? And if unborn babies can be killed and harvested, why not newborns? Or if killing embryos is acceptable because they are unconscious or have no feelings, what about people in comas? And if that's okay, then what about people who are paralyzed? What about anyone who I think is less important or less valuable to society than me? Once we declare that some human lives may be sacrified for the good of others, who decides which human beings can be killed, and for whose benefit?


Posted 26 Jul 2001.

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