Embryonic Stem Cells: Ethical Q&A

Armen Hareyan's picture

California based Geron has received an FDA approval to conduct world's first human clinical trial of embryonic stem cell-based therapy. While many have praised California as becoming a leader in stem cell research, the issue of Embryonic Stem Cells has always been a source of controversy and raises very serious ethical questions.

The following is from the educational bulletin from the Respect Life program by the Diocese of Charlotte.

What is a stem cell?
A stem cell is a “precursor” cell, an undifferentiated cell, capable of producing more specialized types of cells; just as the stem of a plant grows and becomes leaves and berries, stem cells give rise to the developed cells that form the organs and tissues of the body, such as brain cells, heart cells, etc.

What are “embryonic stem cells” vs. “adult stem cells”?
Embryonic stem cells are named for where they come from: embryos. In the first days after conception the new person develops the embryonic stem cells that develop into all the organs and different types of tissue in the growing body. Once these embryonic stem cells have made the first steps in developing into specific types of tissues, they are then called adult stem cells. In the analogy to a plant, an embryonic stem cell would be at the base of the stem while an adult stem cell would be higher up on the stem, where the stem forks into branches.

Why are researchers interested in stem cells?
The most prominent and most often mentioned reason is treatment of disease. Because stem cells can form into specialized cell types, the idea is that they could treat illnesses in which diseased cells and tissues do not work normally. Adult stem cells already are used to treat many diseases (i.e., bone marrow transplants are actually adult stem cell transplants!)

Where can you obtain stem cells?

Adult stems cells are all over the body: in bone marrow, in blood from a baby’s umbilical cord, in the liver, in the skin, etc. Embryonic stem cells come only from embryos, and obtaining these cells involves destroying the embryo to remove the stem cells. Thus, adult stem cells can come from a tissue sample from a willing donor, but embryonic stem cells come from killing a human at the earliest stage of life.


Where would researchers obtain embryos?
1. From the many embryos “left over” after IVF (in vitro fertilization). Though frozen in suspended animation, these youngest of our brothers and sisters are fully human and their lives are sacred.

2. From a process called “somatic cell nuclear transfer”: a scientist removes the genetic material (the nucleus & DNA) from a woman’s egg and replaces it with the genetic material from a developed cell (a “somatic” cell) such as a skin cell. This mixed cell acts like a fertilized egg and grows into an embryo. This is how Dolly the sheep was made; i.e., this is cloning.

Recognize this important point: somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) equals cloning, and human cloning would be one of the major sources of embryos for research.

What are the moral issues with stem cell research?

Adult stem cells: the Catholic Church fully supports research and treatment with adult stem cells. Using adult stem cells for treatment and research is the same as using donated blood or a donated kidney to study disease or treat a person with kidney failure.

Embryonic stem cells: the Church firmly opposes human embryonic stem cell research because obtaining embryonic stem cells involves killing embryos and because creating embryos by somatic cell nuclear transfer means cloning humans. Both cloning and the killing of embryos violate the sacred life we are given by God and thus are evil.

What can you do about this issue?
• To contact your legislators by email or phone start here:
Website: www.ncga.state.nc.us/GIS/Representation
Phone for the State Board of Elections: (919) 733-7173 (they will connect you to your County Board of Elections who will tell you exactly who represents you and how to contact them.)

No ethical guidelines can be established to destroy human life. With the exception of embryonic stem cell research, all other types of stem cell research have shown great promise without destroying life and are ethically permissible.