Is human embryonic stem cell research morally right or wrong?
In 1997, a woman had a father who was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Hearing that stem cells from unborn babies could be the cure of the disease, the woman tried to conceive only to kill the embryo for the stem cells in order to help treat her father's disease. This launched the beginning of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research the following year. In hESC research, the five to six-day old embryo- a developing offspring from the time of implantation to the end of the eight week after conception, is grown in a petri dish or left over from in-vitro fertilization and eventually is destroyed to obtain the stem cells to find potential medical treatments for human diseases. When it was first discovered in 1998 that scientists could isolate stem cells from human embryos, there was great excitement. The embryonic stem cells may be the key to relieving human suffering from diseases. These cells, unlike adult stem cells, are capable of continuously producing all types of specialized cells, such as heart cells, brain cells, liver cells, and kidney cells in the body. While some people found this new research exciting, the research became controversial due to the type of stem cells used- human embryonic stem cells. What makes hESC research morally wrong or acceptable? The use of hESCs for research has been a national controversy, and it is essential to today as science advances forward and ethics slips away.
Stem cells are valuable for research, but human lives are priceless. No one has the right to take away the lives of anyone and use them as a means, especially the ones who are helpless and innocent. No matter what stage of development the embryos are in, they are human beings and deserve the respect and right of life. Plus, the use of hESC research has not been very successful, but has actually caused further damage and problems to the recipients. There are other ethical and successful ways to obtain stem cells to cure diseases. It is crucial to understand the cruelty and unethical way that science has accepted in destroying human embryos to advance the medical research. While supporters view human embryonic research to be acceptable and opponents argue that hESC research is morally wrong, I believe that hESC research is never morally acceptable because it is taking the lives of innocent human embryos in order to find potential treatments for human diseases.
Human embryonic stem cell research is unacceptable because it is using the embryos as a means to benefit the good of others. Most of us have heard of the end does not justify the means. This should guide us in making the right choices, but in science, the ethics is not always the first in line to determine what the moral action is. Unfortunately, in hESC research, the end seems to justify the means. The eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had made an important impact on philosophy, especially on ethics. Kant's supreme ethical principle, which is the categorical imperative, states, "'So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only'" (Kerstein). By this, Kant meant that whatever we do, we cannot use other people as a means. Since I believe that embryos are human beings, they cannot be used no matter how great the ends might be. The finding of potential medical treatments for human diseases does not justify the research to be acceptable. Scott Klusendorf, director of Bio-Ethics at Stand to Reason, clearly summarized what the research really is doing to the embryos. "The research treats a distinct human being... as nothing more than a disposable instrument to be used for someone else's benefit" (Klusendorf). The research is using the embryos merely as a tool and experiment for the greater good of someone else's. Since embryos are humans, killing them is an absolute evil, no matter how great the outcome might be. The end must not excuse a person from using and killing a human being because this is absolutely unethical.
While many supporters of human embryonic stem cell research assume that the human embryonic stem cells can cure many human diseases, it turns out that opposite of human non-embryonic stem cells, the therapeutic effect of human embryonic stem cells is low and actually causes more problems than cures. Embryonic stem cells are rejected by a recipient's body because the cells, consist of different genetic codes, do not match with the person's genetic makeup. Steven Ertelt from Life News quoted from Doctor David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana University, "'Stanford researchers have published results that verify, yes, human embryonic stem cells are rapidly rejected by the immune system, considered foreign enemies when injected into the body.'" Since the embryonic stem cells are made up of their own unique DNA and genetic make-up, they are different from the recipient's. As a result, when getting the injection, the body's immune system does not recognize the stem cells, and it rejects the stem cells as foreign substances. In clinical trials of injecting hESCs into patients with Parkinson's disease, the transplanted cells failed to improve the condition and caused other issues as a result. Doctor Bernard Lo from the University of California explained, "Indeed, about 15% of subjects receiving transplantation developed disabling dyskinesias, with some needing ablative surgery to relieve these adverse events" (Lo). The stem cells injected at the site of damage in the brain were supposed to help improve the neurological disorder. Instead, the transplantation made the condition worse by causing further problems, and patients suffered more from the adverse events through additional disorders and surgeries. Because the body does not accept human embryonic stem cells, it further supports the fact that the research is not only wrong, it causes more problems than cures.
Of all reasons, human embryonic stem cell research is morally wrong mainly because it destroys the human being who deserves the right to life no matter what. As a pro-life Catholic, I believe that every life is a gift no matter if the person who possesses this life is a saint or serial killer. It does not matter how insignificant that life is, he is a gift and needs to be protected. According to Monsignor David Malloy, a bishop in the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), "As believers who recognize each human life as the gift of an infinitely loving God, we insist that every human being, however small or seemingly insignificant, matters to God- hence everyone, no matter how weak or small, is of concern to us." Because every life is a gift from God who created it, it is essential to protect the human person, especially if he is weak and helpless. Just because embryos are under-developed and seemingly insignificant does not mean that they do not have human dignity and have full human worth and rights. From a clump of cells to a healthy baby, that being is a human, as discussed on Genetic Science Learning Center. The clump of cells, though invisible to the naked eye, is an embryo and the future baby. Though microscopic and seemingly insignificant, the embryo is a human being and this gives him/her the right to life. Because the embryos have the human rights, failure to protect them destroys the moral foundation of society. Rebecca from Almost Human quoted from Dr. Jim Eckman, a member of advisory board of Nebraska coalition for Ethical Research (NCER), "'Failure to protect embryonic... human life, the most vulnerable of human beings, erodes the moral fiber of our society... Since respect for human life is a cornerstone of civilization, human embryonic stem cell research will weaken the moral foundation of our society.'" Without respect for human life, there is no morals in a society. Not protecting the least and weakest of human beings is to tear apart the cornerstone of morality in society and violate the life, dignity, and rights of human beings. Embryos have the same rights and are entitled to the same respect and protection given to other human beings.
According to the philosopher, Jeff McMahan, since six-day old embryos are not human organisms because there is not enough cell differentiation, using them for stem cell research is acceptable. Jeff McMahan is a White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford who has researched greatly on the ethical issues regarding the unborn human life. The cells that make up the embryo is contained in the zona pellucida, which is an extracellular membrane composed of a bunch of undifferentiated cells that all start from one cell called the zygote. During the first two weeks after conception, the cells are only dividing to create a bigger mass. The cells have not differentiated enough to have specific functions to sustain life. In Meta Philosophy, Jeff McMahan argued, "Only when there is sufficiently significant cell differentiation, so that different cells begin to serve different though coordinated functions... do the cells together constitute a human organism." Because the cells in six-day old embryos have not differentiated into various living organs that work together to sustain life, the embryos are not considered human organisms according to McMahan. The significant cell differentiation happens around the second week after conception. McMahan further explained, "Since significant cell differentiation is clearly identifiable at around two weeks after conception, it seems reasonable to treat that as the time at which human organism begins to exist." Because human embryonic stem cell research uses six-day old embryos, and since six-day old embryos are younger than two week old, the embryos are not yet human organisms. Therefore, hESC research can use the embryos' stem cells.
Countering Jeff McMahan, six-day old embryos are human organisms because they have the full set of human genes and they are continuously developing. Scientifically speaking, an embryo has human genes and is a member of the species Homo sapiens as Monsignor David Malloy explained on USCCB. "As a matter of biological fact, this new living organism has the full complement of human genes... Though dependent in many ways, the embryo is a complete and distinct member of the species Homo sapiens" (Malloy). At conception, fertilization occurs. Fertilization is an event in which the sperm penetrates the egg. The result is a cell, a zygote, which contains one set of chromosomes from each parent. The chromosomes consist of DNA which has the genes to make the genetic make-up of a human being. As human beings, we are derived from the microorganism Homo sapiens. This means that we were once embryos. To say that six-day old embryos are not human organisms is to deny that they do not have human genes when it has been scientifically researched and known that they indeed do. Furthermore, six-day old embryos are human organisms because they are alive and continually developing. Can a dead person live? Is it possible for his cells to grow and divide once he is dead? No dead organism can replicate its cells. An embryo is alive since its cells are dividing to make different and specific cells to form organs. Not having enough cell differentiation does not imply that embryos are not humans. They are merely at a different stage of development as Robert George, professor at Princeton University and Patrick Lee, professor of philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville declared. "The difference between human embryos and adults is a difference merely in stage or degree of development of precisely the same kind of being" (George and Lee). Embryos and adults are both from the same kind of being- humans. Even at the embryonic stage, adults and embryos alike are distinct and complete human organisms. The main difference is what developmental stage they are in. Development is a continuous part of life. If a person does not develop as a days old embryos, he cannot become a fetus, infant, child, or adult. Therefore, an embryo is a human organism.
Supporters of human embryonic stem cell research argue that the embryos have not fight to life because they lack the quality of life and moral status. In order to identify who has the right to life, one has to consider the quality of life. Howard J. Curzer from Texas Tech University explained in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, "Embryos have a low quality of life, to say the least. They do not go dancing or play baseball. They do not watch TV or enjoy the sunrise. They do not even feel pleasure or pain" (Curzer). The embryos lack the requirements for moral status. Because embryos lack the very basics of personhood like self-awareness, pain, and pleasure, they do not have those attributes that make up the quality of their lives. Not being able to feel any senses or enjoy life shows that they do not have the qualities of life that give them the right to life. In addition, since the embryos do not have the capacity for higher-functioning or moral status, they are not human beings as philosophers Agata Sagan and Peter Singer from Meta Philosophy noted. "It is conscious beings who have intrinsic value and rights... It is self-aware beings, or beings with an exercisable or previously exercised capacity to reason, who have this special moral status" (Sagan and Singer). Those who are or previously were capable of consciously being aware of what is going on to reason have those value, rights, and moral status of human beings. What determines if an organism has the intrinsic value and rights lies in his immediate ability to exercise the capacity to reason. Because it is clear that the human embryos obviously do not have the quality of life or the ability to reason, they are not human organisms. As a result, one cannot prevent science from using the embryos to obtain stem cells for research.
While I do somewhat agree with what the opponents have proposed on what makes a being worthy of life, I strongly believe that no matter if an embryo does not have the quality of life or higher functioning, the embryo deserves the right and respect of life simply because he/she is a human. It is logically reasonable to say that because embryos do not even have the very basic characteristics of life like pain and other feelings, they cannot be considered as human beings. However, philosopher Howard Curzer failed to support his argument because there are born human beings who do not have these basic quality of life. Ilana Yurkiewicz from Bioethics and the Law compared the embryos to comatose patients. "The individual [coma patient] was never able to think or feel, never achieved awareness... It follows that such a being would not have human dignity... We could justifiably take her limbs," (Yurkiewicz). The comatose patient can almost do nothing. He cannot feel pain, be aware of his surroundings, enjoy the sunset, or dance. Basically, he is in a vegetable state. Clearly, this person has a low quality of life. Therefore, if this is correct, Curzer would support the taking of the comatose patient's limbs and organs. However, this would absolutely be morally wrong because that being is a human with human dignity. In the same way, just because an embryo does not have the quality of life does not give us the right to kill him and take his cells. The embryo is a human being and has human dignity because he was created in the image of God, just like every other human being. Furthermore, what Agata Sagan and Peter Singer said about only beings who are conscious and have the ability to reason and have mental functioning are worthy of life is faulty reasoning. Again, there are born human beings who do not have the immediate capacities to exercise mental functions and reasoning. Babies do not have this capacity, and if we treat them like embryos, there is nothing wrong with using them for research. Robert P. George and Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, philosophers at Princeton University and Georgetown University reasoned, "The developing human does not reach a level of maturity at which he or she performs a type of mental act... until at least several months after birth. A six-week-old baby lacks the immediate exercisable capacity to perform characteristically human mental functions... It would follow that six-week-old infants do not deserve full moral respect... One is logically committed to the view that... the baby parts of human infants, as well as those of human embryos and fetuses, should be fair game for scientific experimentation.'" Since a human being does not have a mature ability to perform a higher mental act until several months after birth, and since babies younger than this cannot, the babies do not deserve the moral status, and scientists can use them in whatever way they want. However, this is absolutely unreasonable and is considered murder. That baby has the nature of entity, the right to life. In the same way, an embryo lacks the immediately exercisable capacity for rationality and self-awareness. But, like the infants, they have every right to life even if it takes them years to fully develop that capacity. They are part of humanity, and to destroy them for research is tantamount to murder. One cannot determine what an embryo deserves simply based on physical and mental abilities. To adopt this stance is to deny that human beings have human dignity. Embryos, fetuses, infants and comatose patients are all human beings, and they all deserve the right to life no matter if they are unequal in size, intelligence, and strength. As a result, since the embryos have the equal right to life just like every other human being, to use them for research is morally wrong.
People who support human embryonic stem cell research believe that it is done for the greater good of humanity, decreasing suffering and increasing happiness. The embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure many diseases. The article from Issues & Controversies noted, "Researchers have attempted to use stem cells to develop cures for a wide range of ailments and illnesses... such as heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, and vision and hearing problems, as well as degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease" (Stem Cell Research: Should). The possibilities of cures for human diseases is endless. The embryonic stem cells can specialize into any type of cells in the human body, and with them, doctors can repair damaged tissues in organs. In 2009, physicians from the University of California, Los Angeles and scientists at biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology took two patients into trial and found that they benefited from embryonic stem cells treatments. "After having cells derived from a days-old embryo injected into her eyes, the graphic artist could count fingers... read her watch and thread a needle. The macular degeneration patient... went to the mall for the first time in years" (First Patients Shown). From not being able to see to having their sight back showed the incredible effectiveness of embryonic stem cells. These cells can be the success of science and medicine. Using the embryonic stem cells can end or at least alleviate all sorts of suffering. The overall benefits of humanity outweighs any harm done to the embryos who are going to die anyway. As Yurkiewicz summarized Paul Ramsey's "nothing is lost" principle. This principle states, "It is acceptable to take an innocent human life if two conditions are met: 1) the subject's death in inevitable; 2) other innocent human lives will be saved a result" (Yurkiewicz). The possibility of saving hundreds or thousands of people outweighs the destruction or death of an embryo, who does not have the quality of life and is going to die anyway. The research is acceptable because nothing would be lost, and only good would come out.
While the potential of saving so many lives through human embryonic stem cell research can be awesome and beneficial, it threatens many people, and one must always put ethics first in science and not use embryos as a means. Just because the parents of the embryos consent to donate them for research or the embryos are going to be discarded does not give other humans from doing further wrongs upon them. If it was morally acceptable, what danger this has on prisoners or terminally ill patients. Ilana Yurkiewicz quoted from the USCCB, "'The idea of experimenting on human beings because they may die anyway poses a grave threat to convicted prisoners, terminally ill patients, and others.'" If Paul Ramsey's principle was true, then taking the body parts of prisoners on death row or ill patients is acceptable since it is going to benefit and save other lives. But, this is not only illegal, it also violates human dignity. Yurkiewicz also explained, "Just as we may not ravage a prisoner on death row for his body parts, likewise we may not harvest the embryo for its stem cells simply because it is destined for destruction." Just because one is going to die anyway does not give us the right to inflict further wrong on him by getting his body parts because this would invade one's dignity as a human being. Similarly, an embryo is a human being, and we cannot justify a wrong action by claiming that it is going to help so many others and that the embryo is going to die anyway. Jane Roberts from Mirror Magazine shows that people are merely justifying even when they know it is wrong. Human embryonic stem cell research is sacrificing "fresh people"- the innocent and most helpless humans in order to better science. In reality, people know that embryos are human beings deep down in their hearts. Knowing this, they block out any reasons that might stop them from using the embryos to advance science. Instead, they are simply finding other reasons to justify their evil wrong-doing. Science can be a wonderful tool to relieve suffering. However, to make science the best it can be, one must remember that there must be ethics in science as the article from Issues & Controversies quoted from Family Research Council. "'Advance in science, medicine, and technology may hold promises of improved health and well-being, but may also devalue human life and dignity. Good science is also ethical science... valuing all human life and maintaining human dignity'" (Stem Cell Research: Should). Science is there to help people, not killing people to help improve science. The purpose of science is to use ethical procedures and means to help its people. To use the embryos merely as a means to advance science so that it can help others is eccentric. It is not valuing all humans equally, protecting their dignity, and preserving human life. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that using embryos for medical treatments violated the principle of the good will. The Dioceses of Leeds explained, "any practice undertaken with the sole intention of using embryos... for improving medical treatments- as a means to an end- would also go against Kantian principles- especially the principle of the good will... an action ought to be done because it is morally right, not done out of self-interest or to promote good consequences." Using embryos to promote an overall happiness is utilitarian, which focuses on the ends or consequences and not on how they are achieved. A right action is not always going to bring happiness or an end to suffering. A moral action is done simply because it is the right thing to do. Killing embryos is morally wrong because they are using them not for the embryo's best-interest, but for their own self-interest to end suffering.
Even though human embryonic stem cells may have the potential to be the cure for human diseases, the research on the embryos is unethical and morally wrong primarily because it violates the human right to life for the sake of others. Because embryos have the human genes, and the cells are actively dividing to form the body parts, they are humans. Just because the cells have not differentiated enough or the embryos do not have the quality of life and higher functioning does not give scientists the right to destroy and experiment on them. If this were true, babies, comatose patients, prisoners on death row would all be at great risk. To kill the embryos in order to bring about a greater good is utilitarian and treats them merely as a means. Truly successful science is ethical science that puts the preservation, protection, and respect of human life first.
It is absolutely shocking how people can be or seem at peace when they are destroying millions of embryos for research. How can the mother try to conceive only to consciously allow her embryo, her child to be killed in order to help her father? The individual person, science, and society have taken a big step in crossing the line to embrace unethical ways of researching for medical treatments. They have pushed aside morality and respect for all life and accepted instead any justification for progressing and advancing science. If the society, nation, and world accept the research, the future generations are going to be lost, and humanity is going to diminish in addition to the ethical problems it will cause. It is necessary to understand that no matter what stage of development the embryo is in or whatever they lack, the embryo deserves the right to life because he is a human being. Because the embryos are innocent and helpless humans, we must do anything possible to protect their lives, stand up for them, and be their voice simply because of who they are in humanity.
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