The use of human embryonic stem cells in scientific research has held great promise for some but this research has also produced powerful objections from others. Indeed, there is a profound if sometimes vehemently expressed moral argument that emerges from embryonic stem cell research. The principal objections to the use of these stem cells has come from evangelicals, conservative Christians and others who equate using embryonic stem cells with killing a potential human. Those who acknowledge the potential benefits that may be derived from research using embryonic stem cells tend to people who are politically progressive, college educated individuals, and those in the field of science and those searching for treatments and/or cures for Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, among other serious health issues. This paper will examine both sides of the issue, all relevant arguments, and will attempt an unbiased review of what the current research into embryonic stem cell research has produced or promises to produce based on existing data and reports.
What are Embryonic Stem Cells?
"Among stem cells, human embryonic stem (hE's) cells are considered to have the greatest potential for biomedical and clinical research," writes professor Joanna Hanley in the British Journal of Haematology. The reason hE's cells have so much potentiality, Hanley and colleagues explain, is that they are capable of "unlimited self-renewal" and they have the capacity to "differentiate into all somatic cell types" in the human body (Hanley, 2010, p. 16). Hence, when doctors and scientists are searching for appropriate treatments for "debilitating injuries" and diseases -- or "age related degenerative disorders" -- hE's cells can serve as a source of tissues and cells that are unlimited in their flexibility (Hanley, 16).
An article in the Journal of Experimental Therapeutics and Oncology explains that embryonic stem cells can serve as a "variety of repair system for the body" due to the fact that they can (at least theoretically) divide in unlimited fashion. Hence they can be utilized to generate "specific cells types" to treat, say, a muscle cell in one instance, a red blood cell or a brain cell in other instances (Saxena, 2010, p. 224).
The American Presidency Project explains that embryonic stem cells are retrieved from the "inner cell mass of a human embryo" and those cells have the potential to "develop into all or nearly all of the tissues in the body… [and this is called] pluripotentiality" (Woolley, et al., 2011). And in order to create an embryonic stem cell for research, a "stem cell line" has to be created from the "inner mass of a week-old embryo… [and as a rule] embryonic stem cells are derived from excess embryos created in the course of infertility treatment" (Woolley, p. 2). It is a fact that many excess embryos are produced when participants using in vitro fertility treatment do not use all the embryos that are created. Hence, "many individuals" donate those unused embryos to science for continuing research (Woolley, p. 2).
Opposition to the use of Embryonic Stem Cells for Research
The original policy collision of ideas and theories vis-a-vis embryonic stem cell research reached a zenith in the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush. It should be noted that the conservative Christian community, including in particular those observing the evangelical faith, were among the strongest constituencies to support Bush's narrow and controversial win over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. This constituency is generally known as "pro life" (against abortions), and this voting bloc has expressed serious moral qualms about using human embryonic stem cells in research, notwithstanding the potential health benefits therein.
Bush campaigned against legal abortions and he took positions critical of embryonic stem cell research, as well, which assured him votes from the conservative faith community. He did not disappoint that constituency once he was in office.
Indeed, it was no surprise that in August 2001, in Bush's first year in office, he indicated (though a presidential executive order) that the only stem cells that could be funded by the federal government for research during his administration were those that had already been harvested. According to The American Presidency Project (Woolley, 2011) at the time of the Bush announcement on the restriction of research there were "60 existing stem cell lines that have already been derived." But the acquisition of additional human embryos would not be allowed under the president's executive order.
Bush's statement embraced the idea that to fund additional research -- beyond the 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines that already were available -- would entail "…crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life" (Woolley, p. 1). So basically on August 9, 2001, Bush was saying that stem cells that were "derived from an embryo that was created for reproductive purposes and was no longer needed" were okay to be used where federal funding was in place (NIH, 2012, p. 1).
While Bush had the support of the conservative Christian movement -- a small segment of the American population -- a majority of Americans were in favor of continuing research into the use of embryonic stem cells. Even some high-profile conservative Republicans like then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (a heart surgeon) were in favor of federal funding for the continued research; also former first lady Nancy Reagan (whose husband Ronald Reagan suffered from Alzheimer's) lobbied for addition embryonic stem cell research to be allowed.
And so, in 2006 the U.S. Congress authored and passed a bill that would in effect discard Bush's executive order; but the president vetoed the legislation, saying that he would not "…support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others" (Babington, 2006). Bush held a White House ceremony in order to receive the maximum attention for his veto, and he brought children into the White House that had been "adopted" from frozen embryos. Every child on the stage, Bush explained, "…began his or her life as a frozen embryo that was created for in vitro fertilization but remained unused after the fertility treatments were complete… These boys and girls are not spare parts," he asserted (Babington, p. 1).
An attempt to override Bush's veto fell short. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter noted that there were an estimated 400,000 frozen embryos available for stem cell research, many of those would never be used. Bush's argument was that if the veto had been successful, and the bill had become law, then "…American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos" (Babington, p. 2).
Meanwhile Dr. Stephen Napier of the National Catholics Bioethics Center in Philadelphia contends that "battle lines" in the ongoing debate about using embryonic stem cells in research have been drawn around "metaphysical questions" like, "What is an embryo?" And "Am I the same thing as my embryo?" (Napier, 2009, p. 496). While these questions do have value within the embryonic stem cell milieu, Napier explains that there are regulatory issues linked to the embryonic stem cell research that are being overlooked. He points to the National Research Act (NRA) (passed in 1974) that gave the authority for a commission to be established that would clearly lay out the ethical considerations that should guide the conduct of "biomedical and behavioral research with human subjects" (Napier, 497).
The genesis for the NRA was the disastrously unethical "Tuskegee Syphilis experiment" that was carried out on African-American men (1932-1972). The commission produced the Belmont Report (published in the Federal Resister in 1979) that offered three main ethical principles: a) the principle of "respect for persons"; b) the principle of "beneficence"; and c) the principle of "justice" (Napier, 497). Moreover, the Belmont Report asserted that in order to respect people there are two "ethical convictions": a) individuals should be treated as "autonomous agents"; and b) people who have "diminished autonomy are entitled to protection" (Napier, 497).
Napier's point comes to fruition when he notes that human subjects with "diminished autonomy" -- subjects that are quite vulnerable -- include human embryos (499). In order to justify his assertion that human embryos should qualify under the tenets of the NRA, Napier believes that his "pre-theoretical intuitions suggest that the human embryo is simply a young human being" and hence, should be protected from intrusions that are part of stem cell research (500). Napier goes on to hypothesize that given the National Research Act's statutes, then: a) if a subject is a member of a vulnerable population, "he/she should be protected from research harms"; and b) "therefore, the human embryo should be protected from ESCR" (embryonic stem cell research) (501).
Professor Insoo Hyun boils the main arguments against the use of embryonic stem cell down to two positions. One, he posits that since the beginning of embryonic stem cell research (ESCr), the movement has "…tapped into underlying dystopian fears…