Embryonic stem cell research is one of the hotly contested issues of the contemporary culture wars. Even within the Republican Party, a division exists over this issue. Prominent Republicans such as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research while others, such as former President George W. Bush and former Governor Mitt Romney, oppose embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds. Before exploring the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it is important to define it and highlight some of its potential and remarkable benefits. A great deal of misinformation exists about stem cell research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a stem cell information Web page that provides extensive information on this type of research. The following are some excerpts from the NIH Web page:
(If you are already familiar with stem cell research, skip down to “The Ethical Debate” sub-heading.)
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth… When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lung, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues.
The Healing Potential of Stem Cell Research
Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease. Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. A primary goal of this work is to identify how undifferentiated stem cells become the differentiated cells that form the tissues and organs. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is central to this process. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A more complete understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy. Scientists are already using stem cells in the laboratory to screen new drugs and to develop model systems to study normal growth and identify the causes of birth defects.
Why Are Embryonic Stem Cells Needed?
One major difference between adult and embryonic stem cells is their different abilities in the number and type of differentiated cell types they can become. Embryonic stem cells can become all cell types of the body because they are pluripotent. Adult stem cells are thought to be limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin. Embryonic stem cells can be grown relatively easily in culture. Adult stem cells are rare in mature tissues, so isolating these cells from an adult tissue is challenging, and methods to expand their numbers in cell culture have not yet been worked out. This is an important distinction, as large numbers of cells are needed for stem cell replacement therapies.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell–like state by being forced to express genes and factors important for maintaining the defining properties of embryonic stem cells. Although these cells meet the defining criteria for pluripotent stem cells, it is not known if iPSCs and embryonic stem cells differ in clinically significant ways. This is a breakthrough discovery; however, further research is needed to determine whether iPSCs and embryonic stem cells differ in clinically significant ways… Viruses are currently used to introduce the reprogramming factors into adult cells, and this process must be carefully controlled and tested before the technique can lead to useful treatments for humans. In animal studies, the virus used to introduce the stem cell factors sometimes causes cancers.
The Ethical Debate
There is one final fact to point out before discussing the political debate over embryonic stem cell research. It is absolutely crucial to note that embryonic stem cells used in this research are derived from the vitro fertilization process. The NIH website explains:
The embryos used in these studies were created for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilization procedures. When they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor... They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.
In vitro fertilization has enabled tens of thousands of couples to have children each year in the United States. In the vitro fertilization process, doctors harvest multiple eggs from the woman, invariably more than will be implanted back into her uterus after laboratory fertilization. The reasons for the retrieval of extra eggs are that some eggs will not develop or fertilize after harvest and/or implantation, the high cost for the surgical procedure of harvesting eggs, and the trauma and relative risk the harvest process poses to the woman’s body. In vitro fertilization almost always results in extra, unneeded embryos. These extra embryos, still in the undifferentiated stage, are the source for embryonic stem cell research. They are only donated for research with the consent of the donors. If the embryos are not donated for research, they are usually discarded.
Those who oppose stem cell research on ethical grounds should understand that the embryonic stem cells used for research would otherwise have been destroyed after the in vitro fertilization process. Thus, if one opposes this research on “pro-life” grounds, they should also oppose in vitro fertilization because it ends with the same result, the destruction of fertilized embryos. Of course, this would not be a popular political position because in vitro fertilization has helped so many Americans longing to be parents. However, it is the only logically consistent position for someone who opposes stem cell research. I can respect someone who holds the consistent position of opposing both embryonic stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. Both of these processes deal with the question of when and how life begins. For me, I do not believe that life begins at conception; I believe that life begins at some point after differentiation. Thus I fully and vehemently support all forms of stem cell research because of the incredible potential it has at treating and curing diseases and improving the quality of life for millions of people. And, if these left over laboratory embryos with stem cells are going to be discarded anyway, why not use them for a noble and important purpose? Supporting stem cell research ought to be considered a “pro-life” position because of its potential to improve and save millions of lives.
Like with most political issues, the Church has adopted a position of strict neutrality on embryonic stem cell research. The Church’s website states, “The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position regarding the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes. The absence of a position should not be interpreted as support for or opposition to any other statement made by Church members, whether they are for or against embryonic stem cell research.” Thus it is important for all individuals, and particularly Church members, to become fully informed before taking a strong stand on this or any political issue.