A Few Thoughts on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Image courtesy of http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2010/10/a-nobel-prize-for-ivf-a-positive-sign-for-embryonic-stem-cell-research/
Image courtesy of http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2010/10/a-nobel-prize-for-ivf-a-positive-sign-for-embryonic-stem-cell-research/

Stem cell research ignites much interest and even more debate. Used already in leukemia therapy, stem cells have the potential to treat a wider range of conditions and make many people’s lives less painful. However, most of the stem cells for research and use come from human embryos that are destroyed in the process of obtaining the cells. Is there anything morally wrong with embryonic stem cell research (ESCR)? I’m going to explore the answers to these questions from the points of view of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and my own philosophy (Gruberism?) and then attempt to persuade you to agree with the last perspective most. Without further ado, let’s get started.

First of all, what are stem cells, and why are they so special? Unlike other specialized cells like skin or brain cells, stem cells are “blank slates” without a particular function. From this unspecialized state, stem cells, can develop into any other type of cell in a process called differentiation. Stem cells also have the ability to regenerate themselves through cell division for long periods of time, even for over a year. Most other cells cannot divide and renew themselves at all, let alone do so for months. If these new cells are also unspecialized, they too can divide and multiply, meaning that a few stem cells can eventually produce millions of themselves. All of this information can be found on the Introduction page of the National Institutes of Health’s website on stem cells at stemcells.gov/info/basics.

The unique nature of stem cells makes them immensely useful. Scientists could learn more about the causes of cancer and birth defects and create possible cures or therapies for them by studying the conditions that trigger stem cells to differentiate. Pharmaceutical companies already test drugs on stem cells. The most useful application of stem cells is in creating replacement cells for damaged or destroyed body parts, reducing the need for donated organs and tissues. These cell-based therapies, as they are called, could treat conditions from stroke and skin burns to arthritis and macular degeneration. These and other uses of stem cells can be explored in more detail under Heading 7 of the “Stem Cell Basics” page of the NIH website I mentioned above (http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics6.aspx).

Most people who know about stem cells see their benefits and want to expand their uses. Here’s where the split that I mentioned above comes. Is destroying a human embryo ethical? Let’s look at how utilitarianism would approach these questions.

Utilitarianism has the goal of giving the greatest number of people possible the best possible ratio of pleasure (overall satisfaction with life, not just physical happiness) over pain. I say “best” instead of “highest” because giving up some momentary or “lesser” pleasures, like eating only ice cream every day, results in longer-lasting, “higher” pleasures, like general good health, and is completely fine in utilitarian thought. Due to the concern for happiness for people, utilitarianism actually splits over ECSR depending on a utilitarian’s definition of “person.”

It is around the fifth day following conception that stem cells are taken from the inner cell mass of the embryo (see the introduction at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stem-cells/). Removing the outer layer of the embryo and harvesting the inner cells stops any further development. The termination of the embryo at this point would not qualify as murder or manslaughter to most utilitarians who see personhood as beginning after that fifth day. In their view, a human embryo at Day 5 is not a person yet, so its destruction would not detract from the happiness of the human population. In fact, the potential uses of the harvested stem cells in reducing the pain of individuals with conditions treatable through cell-based therapies and in preventing future cases of these conditions would add to the overall pleasure of society. Even factoring in the pain of those people who believed ESCR to be morally wrong, most utilitarians who place personhood after the fifth day following conception would still see ESCR as an overall boon to the common good and thus strongly support it (Heading 1, the same site). Notice how I say most, not all: Even within this camp of utilitarianism, divisions exist over the morality of ESCR.

Some utilitarians may not see harvesting stem cells from embryos as unjust but still oppose ESCR in practice. How so? When it comes down to it, utilitarians do not believe in intrinsic human rights at any stage of development. Instead, these “rights” are a useful fiction that help maintain and increase general pleasure (people not stabbing each other out of respect for these “rights” usually does that). Thus, a certain action violating a “right” doesn’t matter so much as the consequences that action has for society’s pleasure-pain ratio. Some utilitarians, therefore, may not regard ESCR as wrong but believe its regular practice to decrease overall pleasure. Avoiding ESCR and extending the fiction of human rights to embryos, they argue, encourages compassion and care toward all people, making its utility for society very high (Heading 1.2, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stem-cells/). The final camp of utilitarians I’ll cover also opposes ESCR, but on slightly different grounds.

To this group of utilitarians, ESCR is unjust in that it greatly detracts from general pleasure, not just by promoting indifference towards human life but also by killing humans. They believe that embryos at Day 5 qualify as humans. Basic human “rights” still do not actually exist, but embryos are included in calculating the pleasure and pain of society. As a result, the destruction of embryos for ESCR gives no pleasure and a lot of pain to a large number of the individuals, greatly detracting from overall happiness. I couldn’t find an exact figure for the number of embryos used for ESCR annually, but, even if it were only hundreds, the murder of humans for the benefit of a larger number of humans would hardly ever be allowed in utilitarian thought. Thus, despite the potential benefits of stem cells, utilitarians who believe personhood applies to embryos at or before Day 5 would regard ESCR as morally wrong and impermissible (Heading 1, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stem-cells/). Now I’ll examine how the tradition of libertarianism approaches ESCR.

Libertarianism focuses first and foremost on human freedom. It emphasizes the intrinsic right of individuals to choose what they want to do with their life, labor, talents, and rightfully earned possessions. Any infringement on this right, such as paternalistic laws and forced redistribution of income, counts as theft, the ultimate transgression in libertarian thought. Despite its differences with utilitarianism, libertarianism also splits over the issue of ESCR due to a different interpretation of what constitutes a “person.”

Libertarians who consider personhood, and thus the right to choose, to begin at or before the fifth day after conception would strongly oppose ESCR. They would argue that, as a person, an embryo has the right to live, no matter the potential benefits gained from its destruction. Although the embryo is not self-aware at this point, these libertarians might point out that the zygote, the single cell formed at conception, already has a completely unique set of genes that will allow it to develop into an adult human being. It is a “whole living member of the species homo sapiens” (Siegel, Heading 1.1, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stem-cells/).  The embryo cannot develop on its own or even voice an opinion on its existence, but libertarians that see embryos as persons would argue that these humans have the potential to develop into adults. Should we remove that potential? Should we assume that, if self-aware and vocal, the embryo would want to be harvested? These libertarians give an emphatic “No” to both questions.

Choice still reigns supreme for the other group of libertarians, but, in their view, embryos do not have a choice. They place personhood at some point after Day 5, so the embryos harvested for stem cells at this point are not individuals and do not have sovereign rights over their own existence. If researchers are willing to pay for these embryos and other individuals are willing to give them (so long as those embryos are their rightful possession), there is no problem with ESCR. People have the right to oppose the practice, but they cannot infringe on other people’s rights and prevent them from continuing it, since human rights never figure into the treatment of these embryos. From libertarianism, I will move to my personal view on ESCR.

To me, ESCR is morally wrong. If you want to stop reading here, feel free to do so; I cannot reach through the computer screen and force you to keep reading (yet). However, if you would like to see the reasoning behind my view, read on.

First, I regard personhood to begin at conception with the formation of an entirely new and unique set of genes in the zygote, much like the first group of libertarians I covered (Heading 1.1, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stem-cells/).  Not only does this cell have the potential for personhood in my eyes; it already is a person with the right to life, whether it was produced in a lab, donated from a fertilization clinic, or created the old-fashioned way. I believe that no person or group has the ability to end that person’s life without crossing an ethical line, even if doing so would increase the length or ease of another person’s life.

Second, I do not accept the argument that embryos may be destroyed in ESCR because they are not self-aware and could not survive by themselves even if they chose to continue living. Humans do not become self-aware until ages 1—3 and in that time still depend on other humans to survive for more than a few hours or days (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/great-kids-great-parents/201211/self-awareness). If ending the lives of humans at these stages of life could provide potential benefits for others on the scale of the benefits of ESCR, would we allow their deaths? I don’t think so. Why should a visible presence and a state of total dependence outside but not inside the womb qualify an infant as a person and the embryo as a non-person?

Third, my argument comes from, as you may have guessed, a religious background. I am a Roman Catholic and believe that human life is sacred from conception until natural death. Given not only a unique set of genes but also a soul from God at the moment of conception, an embryo is an unrepeatable, invaluable creation that “must be defended in integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being” (Catholic Church 2274). Though ESCR could improve many people’s lives, it ends the lives of many others and disrespects those lives. It treats embryos as “disposable biological material,” not humans, especially when these embryos are created specifically for destruction through stem-cell harvesting (Catholic Church 2275). I believe that, in order to truly respect and love all people, we must respect and love people at all stages of life.

Fourth, my opposition to ESCR stems in part from the other existing methods of obtaining stem cells that do not result in the destruction of a person’s life. Basically, stem cells can be found in many of the tissues and organs of adult humans (http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics4.aspx) and even in the umbilical cords of newborns (http://www.stemcellresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/lesson12.pdf). These “somatic” stem cells do not kill or even harm the person when harvested from their body, so they don’t pose a moral dilemma over personhood but still provide the benefits that matter so much to utilitarians.

Somatic stem cells usually can only differentiate into a certain type of cell—blood or brain, for example (http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics4.aspx). However, the variety of body parts in which these cells can be found makes them useful in near as many areas as embryonic stem cells. Also, in the last decade, scientists have found a way to “reprogram” certain genes of adult stem cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that are “blank slates” like embryonic stem cells (http://www.pewforum.org/2008/07/17/the-case-against-embryonic-stem-cell-research-an-interview-with-yuval-levin/). Researchers have had more trouble in multiplying adult stem cells in labs, but, if funding for ESCR were directed to somatic stem cells, this hurdle could most likely be overcome.

ESCR is a divisive issue, even within schools of thought like utilitarianism and libertarianism. Whether it is or is not morally permissible boils down to whether one sees an early human embryo as a person and if they consider that person to have the same rights as a person outside the womb and many years older. I hope that I have given you some adequate reasons for opposing ESCR, or at least some information and questions to research further. My inadequate but heartfelt thanks go to my good friend Becca Galow for her grammatical and French wizardry and to my philosophy professor, Dr. Hagedorn, for his guidance on this post. Until next time, reader: Thank you.

Here are the works and websites I cited in this post in a more detailed format:

  1. The Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Translated by United States Catholic Conference. New York City, New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  2. The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. “The “Political Science” of Stem Cells, Lesson 12: Don’t Throw Away the Future.” stemcellresearch.org. Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. December 15, 2005. http://www.stemcellresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/lesson12.pdf (accessed October 3, 2015).
  3. Levin, Yuval, interview by David Masci. The Case Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Yuval LevinEdited by Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, (July 17, 2008).
  4. National Institutes of Health. What are adult stem cells? June 17, 2015. http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics4.aspx (accessed October 3, 2015).
    1. What are the potential uses of human stem cells and the obstacles that must be overcome before these potential uses will be realized? March 5, 2015. http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics6.aspx (accessed October 2, 2015).
    2. What are the unique properties of all stem cells? March 5, 2015. http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics2.aspx (accessed October 2, 2015).
  5. Siegel, Andrew. Ethics of Stem Cell Research. January 28, 2013. plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin-encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=stem-cells (accessed October 1, 2015).
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