Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Use: What’s the fuss?

There must be a considerable number of people who, like myself, have heard the term “Embryonic Stem Cell Research” but are quite unaware of what that involves. As a first step in this essay it is, perhaps, best to discover something about embryonic stem cells and what makes them so controversial. I have learned that research into embryonic stem cells began in earnest in 1998, when scientists first cultured stem cells in a laboratory.i This achievement was hailed by scientists the world over as a major breakthrough in the field of medical science. It was believed that embryonic stem cells were the key to understanding and controlling human development by replacing and/or regenerating cells within the human body.ii But the ability to culture embryonic stem cells also brought with it certain ethical questions that needed answering. Not surprisingly the debates brought into being an extensive period of controversy that continues today. Some will ask, however, “What is all this fuss about?”

The main source of controversy in this area centers on the methods by which embryonic cells are harvested. The source of embryonic stem cells is, of course, human embryos and infertility clinics around the globe produce many embryos that are surplus to the requirements of the genetic parents. Other sources of the embryos for research lie within those countries that permit the creation of embryos for such purposes.iii

The harvesting of human embryos is, not surprisingly, morally questionable for many people, the main reason being that the extraction of stem cells from the embryo causes its destruction. Furthermore, those who are involved in the research often defend their actions in the media by stating that their concern for the alleviation of human suffering far outweighs any concern or respect they may have for the embryo. For these people the end, they believe, justify the means and this is morally unacceptable to quite a number of people within our society.

For modern Christians the issue of embryonic stem cell research is a “life issue” on the same lines as abortion, cloning and assisted suicide. Christians have accepted that the love of Christ demands that one does no harm to another person, seeks out only what is good in others, consider all who are experiencing hardship to be their neighbor and provide what assistance they can.iv From this one can see that Christian Bioethics is built upon the strong foundations of commitment and belief that are founded in our experience of God and the ways in which he has revealed Himself to humankind. Secular bioethics, on the other hand, appears to equate what is good for humankind is whatever id technologically possible. In this scenario early human embryos are not considered to be human beings because they have no fingers or toes, brain or spinal chord, and they have no thoughts or sense either fear or pain. To people of this mindset early embryos are not living beings and can, therefore, legitimately be used by researchers even in circumstances where the extraction of those cells will result in the destruction of the embryo.v

Roman Catholic teaching with regard to the research into and production of embryonic stem cells is clear and based upon “Respect for Life”, “Reason”, and “Tradition.”vi It informs us that the dignity of every human individual is based upon our belief that each individual is a creation of  God, made in His own image and likeness. It is for this reason we believe that humanity has been set above all other creatures. Human life is sacred and the sacred dignity of each individual must be respected irrespective of their beliefs, actions or choices. Based on such teaching, therefore, each human embryo must be treated as a person from its conception and entitled to certain rights, including the right to life. We must be aware, also, that any “direct and intentional destruction of the embryo is, consequently, seen as a grave offence against the gift of life.”vii

This all seems reasonably straightforward but this is not the case. We find that many of those who actively oppose abortion view stem cell research in a much different light when the embryos involved in the research will be discarded anyway. Instead they would prefer that such embryos be used in efforts to cure life-threatening diseases. In these circumstances people choose to disregard any suggestion that early embryos have the same status as a fetus, though they may be hard-pressed to explain the difference. Their argument may include the suggestion that early embryos are too rudimentary in their development and, therefore, are not entitled to any interests or rights. This would mean that, in simple terms, early embryos should not receive any protection if it means sacrificing legitimate and important scientific research. Those putting forward such an argument do not have to agree on the point when an embryo develops the capacities and characteristics that would, in their eyes, make it a living human being.viii For them it is enough that the surplus embryos be regarded as a collection of cells devoid of any characteristics that warrant protection. They may, however, agree that embryos would hold a higher status than other tissue, because there is a high possibility that if implanted these embryos would come to term and be entitled to full moral and legal rights.

There is a paradox in all of this. Though some may support embryonic stem cell research that involves embryos that may otherwise be thrown away, many find it objectionable that embryos be created solely for research.ix For those who, like me, hold strong right to life views this differentiation appears confusing because the embryos are at the same stage of development in each case. The question is: “How can one set of embryos deserve protection and the other set not?” For those supporting the right to life there is no such confusion. Our moral standpoint is founded on the belief that the spark of life is gifted to us by God, human DNA is present within the embryo, and every embryo has the potential to become a person. It is our firm belief that all human beings are equal and there are very dangerous consequences to treating some differently from others. The fact that the early embryo may not be conscious may not feel pain, and may never acquire such characteristics is of no matter.

It is my opinion that the argument declaring embryonic stem cell is necessary for the development of humanity fails on the grounds that it is unable to adequately deal with the immorality of destroying a human embryo simply for the sake of science. Belief in a loving God who created all humankind does not allow the condoning of the human embryo, irrespective of the stage of development reached, being used as an instrument to bring benefit to others. This stand is summed up in Dr. Padraig Corkery’s assessment that the embryo “ cannot be treated as a ‘means’ to achieve an ‘end’, even when that end is defined in terms of the present or future health of individuals or society.”x

In conclusion, then, within Catholic Moral Tradition it is necessary for all Catholics to understand that by participating in embryonic stem cell research we would be condoning and co-operating in the wrongdoing of others. We must make a stand and disassociate ourselves from their actions. It is not good enough for us to say: “I prefer that embryos not be experimented upon.” We must state firmly: “Embryos ought not be experimented upon regardless of what you or I prefer.”xi Our moral judgment must at all times be consistent if we, as Christians, hope to demonstrate to others that proper moral evaluation of human action is achieved by taking into account the object of that action, the intention of the person taking the action, and the circumstances within which the action takes place. Perhaps now, with new sources of stem cells having been found there will be no need for embryonic stem cell research in the future. The development of these new sources, because it includes the consent of the donor, seems to pose no ethical difficulties and, therefore, all the fuss we have seen to date will soon be no more.

iJohn A. Robertson, Embryo Stem Cell Research: Ten Years of Controversy; Law, Science and Innovation: The Embryonic Stem Cell controversy, summer 2010, from DCU on-line library Nov. 2012.

iiIbid.

iiiRev. Dr. Padraig Corkery, Bioethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition, Veritas, Dublin. 2010.

iv B. Andrew Lustig PhD., At the roots of Christian Bioethics: Critical Essays on the thought of H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr, The Journal of Christian Bioethics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012; 17(3), 315-327, 2011.

vFrancis J. Beckwith; Bioethics, the Christian Citizen, and the Pluralist Game, Christian Bioethics: Non-ecumenical studies in Medical Morality, Routledge, 2007. 13:2, 159-170.

viSee note iii

viiIbid.

viii See note (i)above

ix Ibid.

xSee note (iii) above

xiSee note (v) above

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