Arthur Asuncion


Articles -- Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Unethical (Oct 2004)

Before delving into the topic, I would like to welcome everybody back to UCI and I hope that this fall quarter will be enjoyable and productive for all. After giving a brief introduction to stem cell research, I will argue why I think that embryonic stem cell research is unethical.

I. A Quick Background on Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cell (ESC) research has undoubtedly become a polarizing issue in our society. At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan gave a passionate plea to support ESC research. At the state level, November's ballot will include Proposition 71, which calls for California to spend over 3 billion dollars on ESC research. And on the UC level, scientists who are studying stem cells are bound to get ESC research funding if Prop 71 is passed.

Adding to the complexity of this issue are the many different ways to harvest stem cells. ESCs, also known as pluripotent cells, can be harvested from a normal human embryo (formed via in vitro fertilization ) or from a cloned human embryo (using somatic cell nuclear transfer ). The embryo will be destroyed in the process. Adult stem cells, also known as multipotent cells, can be taken from many different human organs or even from umbilical cord blood.

Many scientists favor ESCs over ASCs because they theorize that ESCs have more plasticity than ASCs . ASCs are thought to be more limited in the types of cells to which they can differentiate, while ESCs can ideally become any type of cell.

Even though ESCs are theoretically more versatile than ASCs , research suggests that ASCs are outperforming ESCs in practice. While ESC research has great potential, ASCs have already been used to treat sickle-cell anemia, spinal cord injuries, damaged hearts from heart attacks, and many other diseases. It must be noted that ESC research is relatively new and that ASC research has been taking place for a longer period of time.

II. My Angle on ESC Research

While I heartily support ASC research, I think that most ESC research is unethical and I feel that this type of research should not be pursued even if the dividends are great. The only problem that I have with ESC research is the letter E. Human embryos will be destroyed in the process. I must note that E is so controversial that most advocates of ESC research will simply refer to it as SC research (a clever sleight of hand).

What value should we place on human embryos? The answer to this question determines one's position on ESC research. As many science textbooks will admit, human life begins at conception. I have articulated in a previous article on abortion (“Abortion: The War Within”, I.R., June 2003) that human life should consistently have the same value, whether one is an embryo or fetus or infant or teenager or elderly or white or black or Asian. A human embryo should be viewed as a person rather than just an aggregate of unimportant cells.

Indeed, The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty , and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While a creationist like me would argue that human embryos have an unalienable right to live, perhaps an evolutionist who does not believe in such a Creator would have a different outlook. If humans just evolved from lower forms of animal life, what would be wrong about destroying an unimportant aggregate of cells, especially when this type of research has the potential to cure all sorts of diseases, like Alzheimer's, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis?

Along with many other topics, this issue of ESC research is revealing the fundamental importance of one's worldview and how a person's worldview shapes his politics and personal opinions. If one has a materialistic philosophy, there should be no ethical problems with ESC research.

One good argument for performing some ESC research is the nothing is lost (NIL) argument (read Outka : Since in vitro fertilization has produced an excess of 400,000 frozen human embryos and since it is certain that many of them will never see the light of day, why don't we use some of them for beneficial research that may save other lives?

NIL seems to be a very convincing argument. One can argue that President Bush used a loose variant of this argument to justify his funding of ESC lines from already-destroyed embryos. While I mostly agree with Bush's reasoning to fund research using the ESC lines, NIL does not justify destroying additional human embryos. Just because the human embryos are doomed to die does not mean that we can destroy them to potentially save others.

A common counterexample to NIL is the poor prisoner on death row. The fact that the prisoner will die does not give us the right to kill the prisoner prematurely in order to perform research on the prisoner's body. NIL can even be generalized to the whole human population. Every person will eventually die, so in the grand scale, nothing is lost if we pick a person at random to kill for research purposes that will benefit others. Clearly there are limits to the NIL argument.

What should we do about the 400,000 frozen human embryos? This is a societal dilemma. One ethical option is to dramatically reduce the amount of in vitro fertilizations and to put these embryos up for adoption; however, I must note that I have not thoroughly analyzed the feasibility of such an option.

Another disturbing aspect of ESC research is that it paves the way for human cloning. As I stated earlier, ESCs can come from an embryo cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer.

While scientists name this procedure therapeutic cloning , this cloning procedure is actually identical to reproductive cloning . In the first case, the cloned human embryo is destroyed for research. In the second case, the cloned human embryo is given a chance to become a baby.

Ron Reagan sermonized on the virtues of therapeutic cloning at the Democratic National Convention:

Now, imagine going to a doctor who, instead of prescribing drugs, takes a few skin cells from your arm. The nucleus of one of your cells is placed into a donor egg whose own nucleus has been removed … Those cells will generate embryonic stem cells containing only your DNA, thereby eliminating the risk of tissue rejection. These stem cells are then driven to become the very neural cells that are defective in Parkinson's patients. And finally, those cells -- with your DNA -- are injected into your brain where they will replace the faulty cells whose failure to produce adequate dopamine led to the Parkinson's disease in the first place … In other words, you're cured.

Reproductive cloning is repugnant to most people. Many nations have banned reproductive cloning altogether. However, it seems to me that therapeutic cloning is far worse. Not only does human cloning take place, but a human embryo is destroyed. These human embryos are simply born to die.

I suppose that Ron Reagan, in supporting therapeutic cloning, speaks for many supporters of ESC research. Let me also note that California 's Proposition 71 would also fund this controversial practice of therapeutic cloning.

We have seen that ESC's potential is already ASC's reality. If quickly finding cures to diseases is important, should we not further fund ASC research since ASCs already have a proven track record? That way, we can sidestep the ethical quagmire of cloning and destroying human embryos.