The Bioethics of Stem Cells

Is it morally acceptable to use embryonic tissues to cure diseases?

I. Introduction

            The use of embryonic stem cells in medicine has quite often promised incredible breakthroughs and nearly miraculous cures of numerous diseases like diabetes, MS, and many others. The industry has drawn billions of dollars in support of this research with the hopes of one day solving a myriad of diseases. Such a tremendous flow of funding makes this avenue of research incredibly lucrative. It isn’t difficult to see why many companies would push for their staff to work with these lines of stem cells. The problem comes with the weight of significant moral baggage.

II. The data

            Stem cells were an incredible discovery. These cells are quite special due to their ability to differentiate into other types of cells. As is quite obvious from even such a basic description, the possibilities of healing injures or curing diseases seems without limit.

            Embryonic stem cells are considered pluripotent.[1] This means they have the capabilities to transform into any type of tissue. These types of cells quite literally have the capacity to become any tissue in the human body. The mystery that researchers are trying to crack is, of course, the methods of how to control the transformations. You wouldn’t want a stomach cell to form where you are trying to produce neurons or, even worse, accidentally causing a cell to keep dividing unchecked as a cancerous growth. Still, if such manipulations of these cells become feasible, there are indeed great possibilities for medical breakthroughs.

            Stem cells have also been discovered within the bodies of adults. These stem cells, however, lack the naturally occurring full pluripotency of the embryonic cells. These cells typically only differentiate into cells from the tissue it was found in. For example, stem cells found in the liver are limited to becoming part of the liver. This limited diversification is known as multipotency.[2] For this reason, many have passed over these stem cells as a viable option, choosing instead to chase after the possibilities in the pluripotent embryonic stem cells.

II. The Ethical Issues

            While there seems to be so much hope tied to embryonic stem cell research, it is bogged down with tremendous ethical baggage. Due to the cultural shift in the views on the value of a human zygote or fetus, few are even conflicted on taking embryonic stem cells even with the knowledge that it unavoidably destroys the zygote. This begs the question: is a zygote a human person?

            One must also wonder of the effectiveness of this treatment thus far. As we typically have seen in the research, there have been too many hurdles to the control of embryonic stem cells. To date, embryonic stem cells have not been able to cure anything.[3] With over 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars poured into research, we have little to show for it; however, adult stem cells have not only overcome many of these shortcomings, but have already successfully cured many people of an impressive range of disorders.[4]

            For now, a last ethical dilemma is the necessity of human cloning for the use of embryonic stem cells. While often called “somatic nuclear transfer,” the process is the same as cloning. It removes the nucleus of an ovum cell, replacing it with the nucleus of another cell, and causing it to begin embryonic development using DNA from some other original host.  This is exactly what human cloning is, which is banned around the world.

IV. Conclusions

            Biology makes it quite clear that a new, unique human person is created at the point of conception.  From that point onward, it has everything it needs to develop in a continuous fashion from zygote to embryo to newborn to child to teen to adult to senior, and eventually ending in death. Each stage is different than the last, yet nonetheless human at each stage. Of course, many modern arguments suggest that, while the embryo is indeed human, it is not a person. This distinction is shallow, since their answer to when personhood is imbibed cannot be set in stone. Some say birth grants personhood, while others go even further to claim that sentient though is necessary. Birth does not grant personhood. There is no magical process that the birth canal grants upon a person. The embryo is the same inside the womb and outside. The other argument has led us down dark paths, proving the slippery slope nature of this debate. If sentience or conscious thought is the measures for personhood, then anyone who lacks these things is not a person and thus not guaranteed a right to life. This includes the embryos, newborn children, those in comas, or even those that are mentally damaged or limited. If we move the goal posts of when a human is a person, we will never again find a firm place to set it. History shows us many examples of some people claiming another group of persons is less than human, which attempts to free them fro the moral constraints of doing as they please to those they deem sub human. Thus, the zygote used was a human person deserving of protection, not some “almost” human animal.

            The lack of effectiveness of embryonic stem cell treatments is drastically overshadowed by the successes of adult stem cells, which have been reprogramed to be pluripotent like embryonic cells. As such, we can have all the benefits of curing diseases using the patient’s own cells, which avoids rejection and the moral pitfalls of killing a human to attempt to cure another. The promises of embryonic stem cells are hollow compared to the success of adult stem cell therapies.

            Human cloning should be obviously wrong. It is even banned by the majority of the world’s governments. This is why modern researchers have had to use underhanded tactics like redefining human cloning. This “somatic nuclear transfer” is when an egg cell has its nucleus replaced by the nucleus of another cell, such as a skin cell. This triggers the growth of the egg just as a fertilized egg would. If left to grow, it will do so just like an embryo in the same situation. The genetic information used, like from a skin cell, would effectively cause this new zygote to develop as an exact genetic clone to the donor of the nucleus. This was the same exact method that cloned the first mammal, Dolly the sheep.  There is no functional difference between somatic nuclear transfer and human cloning besides the redefining of terms to hide the implications.

V. Consider the Consequences

            When we delve into this complex topic, we discover that the science is actually pointing in one clear direction; however, what would happen if we remained open to the possibilities of embryonic stem cells being even better than adult stem cells? Could these embryonic stem cells one day deliver the miraculous cures that were promised? It is indeed possible, but at what cost? To actively participate in the use of embryonic stem cells is to overlook the ethical issues of ending the life of an unborn human person, as well as opening up Pandora’s box of human cloning. Both issues are the result of the dehumanization of persons for the profit, be it monetarily or for the physical use of another person. We could even point out the ethical pitfalls of taking the life of one person to save another is dubious at best, but best saved for another day.

VI. Decision

            The science itself speaks volumes. When we seek out the scriptures for answers, they say the same thing. Psalm 139:13 and Galatians 1:15 both speak of God’s work on a person even within their mothers’ wombs. Even John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit well before he was born! The unborn are scientifically and scripturally as human and as valuable as each of us, so the destruction and use of their bodies is an action to avoid. I would advise any researcher to stick with adult stem cell research, which has moved beyond promises into real life cures, all the while avoiding all ethical issues.


[1] New York State Department of Health, https://stemcell.ny.gov/faqs/what-difference-between-totipotent-pluripotent-and-multipotent. Accessed on 3/9/19.

[2] New York State Department of Health, https://stemcell.ny.gov/faqs/what-difference-between-totipotent-pluripotent-and-multipotent. Accessed on 3/9/19.

[3] Boston Children’s Hospital, http://stemcell.childrenshospital.org/about-stem-cells/faqs/. Accessed 3/9/19.

[4] Charlotte Lozier Institute, https://www.stemcellresearchfacts.org/stem-cell-treatments. Accessed on 3/9/19

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