Stem Cells: Debunking the “Moral” Cost

Imagine holding the potential to cure almost any disease in your hand: cancer, diabetes, and even sight. But for every cure discovered comes the annihilation of numerous embryos, or “human lives.” Would you still pursue finding a cure and sacrifice the human lives for the greater good?

Stem cells may be the key to curing the seemingly impossible. Using pluripotent stem cells, stem cells that can grow into almost any sort of tissue, scientists may one day be able to cure diseases, heal damaged tissue and even grow new organs.

Embryonic stem cells, or ESCs, are the earliest stage of all cells, and can develop into nearly any type of cell, making them incredibly useful and potentially ground-breaking to the field of biology if manipulated correctly. However, in order to obtain pluripotent stem cells, the usable form of an embryonic stem cell, one must destroy an embryo obtained from a human. This has instantiated a decade-long debate on the morality of using embryos, and whether embryos are developed enough to be given the same rights as a human being.

On one side, one can claim that life as a human being starts the instant the embryo is formed, and that embryos deserve the same rights and protection we all enjoy due to their potential to become a human, despite whether they are in a fertility clinic or in a woman’s body. Based on this perspective, treatment of embryos should be under protection of human law, which means that destroying an embryo, similar to aborting a fetus, could be deemed as murder; thus, destroying embryos to obtain pluripotent stem cells would be horribly inhumane.

However, the possibility that an embryo is equivalent to a human life is dubious at best, as the embryo has barely begun developing and cannot even survive outside of the womb, nevertheless function. And even if we except that an embryo is a human in the most abstract sense, destroying an embryo from a fertility clinic would not destroy the potential for human life. All embryos from fertility clinics technically do not hold the possibility of life, as the stem cell researchers only use embryos which would not have been used to stimulate pregnancy and would have been destroyed anyways.

Opposers of stem cell research are often greatly impacted by religious or cultural reasons and emotional appeal. The reason why many people find it difficult to sacrifice and “kill” stem cells is the pathos related to it; this brings to mind an image of killing innocent, helpless embryos similar to babies, bringing out their protective, nurturing nature. Additionally, many view it as immoral to destroy an embryo, whether it be abortion or anything handling embryos, due to religious and cultural beliefs.

One way to counteract this belief is by arguing that the moral standing of humans comes much later in the gestation process, when the embryo has developed into a fetus and is able to function successfully. But then what is considered a “human being?” One proof that embryos do not earn that title comes from Discover Magazine, which states, “fetuses cannot feel pain until at least the 28th week of gestation because they haven’t formed the necessary nerve pathways, says Mark Rosen, an obstetrical anesthesiologist at the University of California.” Embryos precede a fetus chronologically; therefore an embryo cannot even feel pain and should not be given special protection as it cannot feel pain. Ko, a sophomore, agrees with this phrase, saying, “Embryos can’t process pain and aren’t aware physically and [therefore aren’t] mentally aware enough to be on the same level as humans.”

Finally, for stem cell research the facts and benefits simply outweigh the cons. Ko summarizes, “Stem cell research should be continued because the pros are greater than the cons. Stem cell research could help a lot of people with medical conditions or injuries, and that possibility is too great to ignore.” An embryo is too rudimentary to be considered a human life; it merely holds the potential for a life to occur, but is not actually eligible to be treated as a human being, as it does not have the physical or mental capabilities to be treated as an equal. And when comparing the downsides against the benefits, the vast world of possibilities and cures from stem cell research greatly supersede the moral implications, which rely on the unsupported belief that embryos are indeed human beings.

Legally, there is no definition of what is considered a human life, as it invokes one’s own moral beliefs and views. Although a legal definition cannot be placed on a human life, the federal government can place restrictions on stem cell research and cut funding. In fact, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, restrictions on funding were placed on stem cell research until 2009, when Obama allowed funding and removed restrictions from this area of research, except that embryos must be given with consent. As many stem cells often will be discarded if unused, Obama’s requirements prove just, as the value of these stem cells will truly be revealed only if they are utilized.

According to Nature Genetic Reviews, “the challenge that must be met is how to permit research on human embryonic tissue to occur while maintaining respect for human life generally.” One solution came from the President’s Council on Bioethics, which proposed in 2005 that sources of pluripotent stem cells be pursued which don’t involve the destruction of or harm to human embryos, such as stem cells from already dead embryos and bioengineered artificial embryos. This offers an ingenious solution which negates the issue of the loss of potential life and solves the ethical issue preventing stem cell research from progressing.

Overall, stem cell researchers should be allowed the privilege of using embryos for stem cell research if they obtain consent. Embryos are not advanced enough to feel pain and be considered humans, and the ethical concerns over the rights of an embryo are vastly outweighed by the sizable potential held in the embryo: a potential to save many more human lives, and a potential that is coming closer and closer to reality.


(Cover image – Wikimedia Commons)