Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Overcoming The Ethical Barriers

With well-publicized declarations that embryonic stem cells may be the panacea for every disease and affliction that defies current medical treatments based on surgical procedures and drug-based therapies, vocal support for stem cell research continues to grow louder. Proponents emphatically state that such research could regenerate failing organs since they have the potential to “become nerve cells, muscle cells, heart cells and all of the other cells in the body”[1] and cure diseases and other afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, macular degeneration and even blindness, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. In the rush to justify and promote this research ethical questions such as “Do embryonic stem cells represent a life, should ‘extra’ frozen embryos created through in vitro fertilization be used to establish stem cell lines, and does the end (potential for and even cures of debilitating diseases and afflictions) justify the means (human embryonic stem cell research even if the embryo is destroyed in the process)?”[2] are pushed aside. Worse yet, research has even been distorted, exaggerated and/or fabricated to promote embryonic stem cell research.

When focusing on the ethical dilemmas involved, a conservative approach is required. Thus when the first question is posed, one must view each stem cell from the perspective that life begins at the moment of conception rendering the embryo a living human being despite differing opinions. While Jewish leaders take a neutral view since the Hebrew word “golem” or “unformed substance” is vague regarding the beginnings of life, Christianity based on the incarnation of Christ, in which the Word became flesh from the moment of conception takes a stronger stance as illustrated by the sample statements below: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” [Jer 1:5; cf. Job 10:8-12; Ps 22:10-11], “Each soul is created by God along with body and grows together with the body from the moment of its creation [Gregory of Nyassa (c. 335-394)] and “from the outset, (fertilization) a person is created as a whole, complete both in a body and with a soul” [John Breck, a prominent theologian at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, France].

Nevertheless, since sincere differences exist even among Christians regarding when life begins, it is imperative that John Paul II’s (1920-2005) words in Evangelium disabled placard Vitae “What is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo” and in Catechism of the Catholic Church” “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception…” and the Church of Scotland’s statement, “…if God brings a new human being into existence through the process of fertilization, and if there is no other point at which anyone can be as certain in its affirmation that an individual life has begun… there is a moral imperative to resolve any doubts on the side of protecting life,”[3] be heeded.

This then brings a narrower focus on stem cells themselves. “Do they represent a life?” Presently there is no evidence that a single stem cell, once replication has begun has “the intrinsic capacity to generate a complete organism in any mammalian species” when extracted during the blastomere stage (when the fetus is two-days old and consists of eight cells), Dr. Robert Lanza, a scientist at Advanced Cell Technology stated.[4] Yet critics argue that the potential does exist presenting an ethical dilemma that can only be resolved through scientific research. Accordingly it is imperative that scientists who already extract a single cell from a human blastomere for PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) during in vitro fertilization to test for genetic disorders, replicate this cell prior to testing and conduct research to determine if it indeed can create an embryo and thus a life, on its own. However, unless proven otherwise, it is doubtful that a single cell extracted during the blastomere stage constitutes nor can create a life any more than during any stage following fertilization and replication from the initial single cell. Otherwise much if not all medical research and procedures (e.g. blood testing, organ transplants, etc.) would be morally unethical since they would involve the destruction of life or potential life.

Based on the above arguments, it is clear that “‘extra’ frozen embryos created through in vitro fertilization” should not be used to establish stem cell lines especially since they are in the blastocyst stage (consisting 150 or more cells) and any such extraction will destroy the fetus and ultimately a human life. Even arguments that stem cells should be extracted since couples responsible for the said embryos have ordered their destruction remain inconsistent and indefensible. Such originating instructions by and of themselves are unethical and morally reprehensible. As a matter of fact, each frozen embryo should be made available for implantation so that a human life is permitted to develop to its full potential in lieu of perpetual stasis or destruction.

Consistent with the above premise, the Church of Scotland explicitly states “human dignity inheres in the very existence of the embryo… it has the full genetic complement of a human being, which neither egg nor sperm possessed separately,”[5] reinforced by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the moment of existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”[6]

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