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The Intrinsic Value of Human Life: On the Ethics of Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cell research has been the center of a polarized ethical debate since the first effective use of human in vitro fertilization in 1978. This debate has gained further popularity since 2009, when Obama issued an executive order that lifted the ban on federal funding for scientists studying human embryos in order to cure potentially fatal diseases.[1] Yet, the growing interest in this field of biomedical research also raises many important ethical questions that ought to be considered carefully. Both scientists and policymakers struggle with these moral dilemmas, that primarily bring into question the intrinsic worth of human life. To what extent do we have a moral obligation to preserve all human life –including a one week old embryo? Likewise, do we not have a duty to attempt to end the suffering of the ill? This paper will address the various bioethical questions that surround embryonic stem cell research and the benefits and drawbacks of its alternative method: adult stem cell research.

A brief understanding of the legal background of embryonic stem cell research is helpful for understanding the discussion and positions’ on this issue. In September of 1994, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Embryo Research Panel issued a mandate on the researchable use of extracorporeal human embryos that come from the process of in vitro fertilization. In other words, the NIH panel recommended that the federal government fund and support the use of pre-implanted embryos in order to study diseases further.[2] Within hours, President Clinton advised the panel against supporting the research of embryos, citing that he did “not believe that federal funds should be used to support the creation of human embryos for research purposes.” [3] Only one year later in 1995, Congress passed the Dickey-Wicker amendment, restricting the use of federal funding for research involving the creation of an embryo solely for research purposes, or the conscious destruction of a human embryo. Yet, research on human embryos that used private funds was not regulated by law.[4] Later in 1998, private funding led to the discovery of a method that allowed scientists to obtain stem cells from human embryos and thus use them to grow cells, which are now known as human embryonic stem cells, or pluripotent stem cells. After reviewing the issue in 2001, President Bush approved federal funding for research using pluripotent stem cells that originated from human embryos before August 9th, so long as the embryos were originally created for reproductive purposes rather than for research.[5] In 2005, the House passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act which would allow for the funding of continual research on human embryonic stem cells; however, Bush vetoed this bill and instead signed into law the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005 that provided funding for research in adult stem cell therapy.[6] The most recent act came in 2009 when President Obama issued an executive order, announcing that limitations on federal funding for the study of human embryonic stem cells would be removed. [7]

So what exactly does it mean that research is being conducted on human embryonic stem cells? Embryonic stem cells are cells within the embryo that become the various cell types and make up the tissues of the human body. These embryos can either come from the process of in vitro fertilization, whereby unused embryos were frozen to be used for research, or they can be created specifically for research. Research is primarily conducted on the blastocyst, the stage of development at which the embryo becomes a mass of cells at around three to five days old. These stem cells are considered pluripotent, meaning they have the ability to grow and develop into the many different kinds of cells that make up the body. The stem cells can also be grown in a culture dish in the laboratory. Scientists are particularly interested in using embryonic stem cells for their potential in curing diseases, such as Parkinson’s, heart disease, and degenerative diseases most common in the elderly.[8] Using the stem cells from embryos could provide insight into organ, tissue, and muscle function and how to repair damage to these various parts of the body. Stem cells could also be used to replace damaged neurons in certain cases, such as Parkinson’s disease.[9]

The process whereby researchers can use stem cells from the embryo requires that the embryo be destroyed. This is due to the embryo being composed of only a few cells: the removal of the stem cells for cultures inevitably leads to the destruction of the embryo. The cases in which embryos survived and went on to develop into fetuses occurred when only one cell was removed from the embryo. In these cases, however, there was not enough stem cells collected by the removal of only one cell in order to be able to use them for research. [10]

We now come to see more clearly the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research. The leading question ought to be: do we have a natural obligation to protect human life? It seems as though any person with some sense of a moral compass would answer yes. Where the issue then resides is whether utilizing embryos to study diseases threatens this protection. Since embryonic stem cell research is fundamentally rooted in the destruction of human life, then yes, using embryos for research threatens our obligation to value human life. When the blastocyst is destroyed, the potential for life is cut off, a potential which begins at conception. We can see this potentiality displayed in the book of Genesis. It is not good for Adam to be alone, so Eve is created from Adam. When Adam knew Eve, their marriage was consummated, and immediately following this comes the birth of their first born, Cain. This suggests two things. One, that the unification of husband and wife is intrinsically linked to the creation of family. And two, that one way man and woman become fully human is by giving oneself to the other as a gift.[11] Still, some researchers might argue that the embryo is not even a fetus yet, but rather a group of cells that do not even have identifiable organs, which are growing in a petri dish. Should thinking of them as cells affect how we value human life? No. There is still the potential for life in these cells. The fact that potentiality begins in a marriage, which is designed to be procreative and unitive, suggests also that destroying even a group of cells ends a human life.

So then the response usually follows that if we have a natural obligation to protect human life, does this not include protecting those who are suffering? What does this protection of those suffering look like? Maybe it looks less like a defense for life, as is the case with an embryo without a voice to declare the value of its existence, and more of an obligation to care for them to the best of our ability. The question that should be asked is not one of ending suffering, but rather one of supporting life, both of the person with the disease and the embryos. If we are to say this, then the way that we care for the sick should not involve ceasing to support the life of another human being. In other words, we cannot justify the destruction a life in order to save another.

We now come to the idea that intentions, or even the end goal, ought to be reason enough in decision making. So by the logic of ends and means, is it right to create life solely for the purpose of destroying it? This seems to be a very utilitarian notion, one in which a human life can be manipulated so that its end is to be useful to another person. Yet, this utilitarian idea of creating life to be destroyed is contrary to our nature. The sustaining of life, which we know to be sacred, is integral to who we are as humans. In the Politics, Aristotle states that the family is a natural association that comes from the union of husband and wife, who also have a natural desire to create images of themselves. In this sense, marriage necessitates family.[12] Within a marriage, we are procreative beings, designed to give life, not take it away. Even outside of marriage, part of what makes us human is our inherent desire to support life. To create life for the purpose of destruction is also violating the natural order of the family, which is the foundation of the polis. The polis, Aristotle argues, is the telos to which each individual family points because it exists for the sake of the good life.[13] Therefore, destroying any potentiality for life also harms the family and the state in that it leads them away from their end.

Still, we cannot simply disregard the remarkable advancements that embryonic research has the possibility of furthering. Already embryonic stem cell research has been used to make advancements in the understanding of a number of neurological diseases.[14] Therefore, if we are going to say that embryonic stem cell research is ethically wrong and should not be conducted, we must propose an at least somewhat comparable alternative. Scientists who oppose embryonic research tend to offer adult stem cell, or somatic stem cell research, as a means in which there is similar potential in curing diseases. An adult stem cell is “an undifferentiated cell, found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ” whose primary role in the body is to repair damaged tissues, and who have the ability to divide and reproduce endlessly. With growing evidence that stem cells exist in the brain and heart, researchers are turning their attention to the possibility of using adult stem cells for transplants.[15] These stem cells are used for research first by isolating them from bone marrow, circulating blood, cartilage, the spinal cord, and a number of other regions of the body. This type of research is ethical because unlike embryonic stem cell research, it does not require the termination of a human life, but rather uses stem cells from already existing areas of the person’s body..[16]

Embryonic stem cell research can potentially be useful in curing diseases that thousands of people suffer from every day of their lives. Yet, we cannot ignore the moral repercussions of this research that actively rejects the value of human life. To destroy life is not only contrary to our nature, which is inherently centered on creation, but it defies what is good. We ought to preserve what we know to be good, lest our souls be harmed by our own refusal to acknowledge the sanctity of human life. In his encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II responds to the threats on human life, “Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature.”[17] Thus at the core of all things we must preserve human dignity, life, and the family, and deem anything that strays from this as unethical.

 

 

End notes:
[1] U.S. President, Executive Order, “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells, 2009, Executive Order 13505” Federal Register 74, no. 46 (March 11, 2009): 10667.  https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-03-11/pdf/E9-5441.pdf
[2] “Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel,” National Institutes of Health, September 1994, https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/559352/human_embryo_vol_1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[3] Fletcher, JC, “US public policy on embryo research: two steps forward, one large step back,” US National Library of Medicine 10, no. 7 (1995): 1875-8
[4] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee of Appropriations, Balanced Budget Downpayment Act, I, 104th Cong., 1995-1996, https://www.congress.gov/bill/104th-congress/house-bill/2880/titles
[5] George W. Bush, “President Discusses Stem Cell Research” (speech, Crawford, Texas, August, 9, 2001), White House Archives, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-2.html
[6] U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee of Energy and Commerce, Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, 109th Cong., 2005-2006, https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/810
 George W. Bush, “President Discusses Stem Cell Research” (speech, Crawford, Texas, August, 9, 2001), White House Archives, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-2.html
[7] U.S. President, Executive Order, “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells, 2009, Executive Order 13505” 10667.
[8] Qing He, Jian Li, Esther Bettiol, Marisa E. Jaconi, “Embryonic Stem Cells: New Possible Therapy for Degenerative Diseases That Affect Elderly People,” The Journals of Gerontology Series A 58, no. 3 (2003): M279-M287. doi: 10.1093/gerona/58.3.M279
[9] “The Power of Stem Cells,” California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, accessed February 15, 2017, https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/power-stem-cells
[10] “Myths and misconceptions about Stem Cell Research,” California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, accessed February 15, 2017, https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/myths-and-misconceptions-about-stem-cell-research
[11] R.J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico Press, 2015), 22-27.
[12] Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), 1128-1130.
[13] Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), 1127.
[14] Qing He, Jian Li, Esther Bettiol, Marisa E. Jaconi, “Embryonic Stem Cells: New Possible Therapy for Degenerative Diseases That Affect Elderly People,” The Journals of Gerontology Series A 58, no. 3 (2003): M279-M287. doi: 10.1093/gerona/58.3.M279
[15] “Stem Cell Information,” National Institutes of Health, accessed April 10, 2017, https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/4.htm
[16] “Myths and misconceptions about Stem Cell Research,” California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, accessed February 15, 2017, https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/myths-and-misconceptions-about-stem-cell-research
[17] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae [Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life], sec. 3, accessed February 13, 2017, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html

 

 

 

References:
Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern
Library, 1941.
Fletcher, JC.“US public policy on embryo research: two steps forward, one large step back,” US
National Library of Medicine 10, no. 7 (1995): 1875-8
George W. Bush. “President Discusses Stem Cell Research” (speech, Crawford, Texas, August,
9, 2001), White House Archives, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-2.html
John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae. Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.
Vatican Web Site. March 25, 1995. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
“Myths and misconceptions about Stem Cell Research.” California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine, accessed February 15, 2017, https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/myths-and-misconceptions-about-stem-cell-research
Qing He, Jian Li, Esther Bettiol, Marisa E. Jaconi. “Embryonic Stem Cells: New Possible
Therapy for Degenerative Diseases That Affect Elderly People,” The Journals of Gerontology Series A 58, no. 3 (2003): M279-M287. doi: 10.1093/gerona/58.3.M279
U.S. President, Executive Order, “Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research
Involving Human Stem Cells, 2009, Executive Order 13505” Federal Register 74, no. 46 (March 11, 2009): 10667.  https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-03-11/pdf/E9-5441.pdf
“Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel.” National Institutes of Health, September 1994,
https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/559352/human_embryo_vol_1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
R.J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. Angelico
Press, 2015.
“Stem Cell Information.” National Institutes of Health, accessed April 10, 2017,
https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/4.htm
“The Power of Stem Cells.” California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, accessed February
15, 2017, https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/power-stem-cells
 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee of Appropriations, Balanced Budget
Downpayment Act, I, 104th Cong., 1995-1996, https://www.congress.gov/bill/104th-congress/house-bill/2880/titles
U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee of Energy and Commerce, Stem Cell
Research Enhancement Act of 2005, 109th Cong., 2005-2006, https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/810