Stem Cell Controversy

The use of human embryonic stem cells (photo) is highly controversial

Research, experiments and treatments involving stem cells are not something new. For example, the first Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation was performed in 1959. It wasn't until 1998, when James Thomson derived the first human embryonic stem cells that both great controversy and excitement ensued. 

Excitement, for all the potential therapeutic uses of human embryonic stem cells and controversy, over the use of this specific type of stem cell. The main reason behind the controversy is the fact that extraction of human embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of a blastocyst, an embryo in the early stage of development. Human blastocysts are 5-6 days old embryos, composed of about  70 to 150 cells.

Some ethical questions arising behind the use of human embryonic stem cells are the  following:
  • When does life begin, right after fertilisation, a few days/months later or at birth? Is there a line we can really draw?
  • Does a human blastocyst have any rights?
  • Can we justify the destruction of a number of human blastocysts if we can save the lives of countless patients as a result?
For some the question is really only one, the rest simply derive from it. Can we consider a blastocyst a real  human being or is it just a mass of cells? If yes, use of human embryonic stem cells is wrong and should be banned, if no it should be continued! And of course there are other, more diplomatic, answers like "yes it is wrong but the end justifies the means"!

But lately, another question arises as well. With all the research and progress going on adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells does it really matter anymore? Let's start with the first question, presenting all the major viewpoints from an individual and religious standpoint.

Individual Viewpoints
The majority of individuals opposing the use of hESCs believe that life begins right after fertilisation. They believe that embryonic stem cell research violates the sanctity of life and some even consider the act of destroying a human blastocyst equal to killing a human being.

On the other hand, we have individuals that support the use of hESCs, because they don't consider a blastocyst to be a human being , or at least something with equal rights. Thus they don't consider the destruction of human blastocysts as something ethically wrong. Some key-viewpoints of hESCs supporters are the following:
  • An embryo can't be considered as equivalent to human life, as it would be unable to survive outside of the womb.
  • A blastocyst is simply a cluster of human cells that have not differentiated into distinct organs, tissues etc. This mass of cells can't be considered more "human" than a drop of blood is. Α blastocyst is only  something with the potential to become life.

Then, there are the people in between. These people are generally against the idea of destroying blastocysts but they don't oppose the use of hESCs for research or therapeutic reasons. Some of their reasons are the following:
  • There is potential to do more good than harm, by saving the lives of countless people for the price of way less human embryos
  • Human embryonic stem cells are typically derived from in vitro created embryos, that either will be destroyed or stored for long periods of time, long past their viable storage life. So since they are gonna die anyway, it is better to get something out of it. According to Washington Post there are currently more than 400,000 such embryos.!
  • More than 1/3 of zygotes do not implant after conception, thus far more embryos are lost due to chance than then what is proposed to be used for embryonic stem cell purposes. 

Religious Viewpoints
Now let's see what the various religious (by alphabetical order) have to say regarding the use of stem cells for research and therapeutic purposes. 

The Southern Baptist Convention is against all uses of human embryonic stem cells. This on the grounds of:

"protectable human life begins at fertilisation." (Gen. 1:27; 9:6)

Baptists are however in favor of adult stem cell research

According to the Catholic church:

"the killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act." 

The Pontifical Academy for Life states that embryos are humans "from the moment of the union of the gametes"  

So it is clear that the Catholic Church is also against the destruction of human blastocysts. However the Catholic Church has multiple times supported the use of stem cells taken from adult tissues and umbilical cords as both practises "involve no harm to human beings at any state of development."

Benedict XVI on stem cell research

The Washington based Islamic Institute has stated:

“Under Islamic principle of the ‘purposes  and higher causes of the Shari’ah (Islamic law),’ we believe it is a societal obligation to perform research on these extra embryos instead of discarding them.”

An Islamic approach to the ethical issues in Stem Cells Research

The United Methodist Church stands in "opposition to the creation of embryos for the sake of research" as "a human embryo, even at its earliest stages, commands our reverence.". It has however stated that it is morally acceptable to use embryos that are scheduled for destruction for research purposes

Given the reality that most, if not all, of these excess embryos will be discarded—we believe that it is morally tolerable to use existing embryos for stem cell research purposes.

The church is in favour of using adult stem cells taken from:
  • adult tissues
  • Fetal remains
  • Umbilical cord blood
  • Human embryos

The Assemblies of God oppose "the practise of cultivating stem cells from the tissue of aborted fetuses" because it "perpetuates the evil of abortion and should be prohibited."

According to Rabbi Levi Yitschak Halperin of the Institute for Science and Jewish Law in Jerusalem, Judaism is in favour of human embryonic stem cell research as long the embryo is still a frozen fertilised egg that hasn't attached to a womb:

“ As long as it has not been implanted in the womb and it is still a frozen fertilised egg, it does not have the status of an embryo at all and there is no prohibition to destroy it...

However in order to remove all doubt [as to the permissibility of destroying it], it is preferable not to destroy the pre-embryo unless it will otherwise not be implanted in the woman who gave the eggs (either because there are many fertilised eggs, or because one of the parties refuses to go on with the procedure - the husband or wife - or for any other reason). Certainly it should not be implanted into another woman.... The best and worthiest solution is to use it for life-saving purposes, such as for the treatment of people that suffered trauma to their nervous system, etc.

Jewish Views On Cloning & Stem Cell Research

Does it matter anymore?
During the past decade, more and more scientists turned their back to human embryonic stem cells. This has occured for a variety of reasons and not only due to their highly controversial status. On of the main reasons is that research has showed that hESCs are very hard to control and many times develop into tumours.

Now most researchers focus their research on adult stem cells and the newly discovered induced pluripotent stem cells, both created without the need to destroy embryos. Moreover, In 2006, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, managed to obtain mouse embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos without destroying them, potentially giving the option to one day extract hESCs with destroying a blastocyst!

It seems that slowly but steadily the human stem cell debate becomes a thing of the past..

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