Why it is Crucial to have Proper Ethical Parameters Regarding Stem Cell Research

Original Article

Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) had indeed issued a press release claiming they could obtain stem cells by taking only one cell from an early 8-10 cell embryo, which, the release claimed, permitted the embryos to remain viable. (Conventional ESCR is conducted upon later-stage embryos at the 100-200 cell stage, which destroys the embryo.) 

But upon closer investigation, it quickly became clear that the story was mostly spin. A review of the actual paper published in the science journal Nature revealed that ACT’s scientists did derive stem cells from human embryos earlier than ever before, but also that the they destroyed every embryo in the process—just as occurs in conventional embryonic stem cell research. Thus the classic media feeding frenzy the experiment sparked was actually much ado about very little.

Still, there is actually some good news to be found in this tempest in a teapot. Before I describe it, let me explain why this exaggerated story gained such international visibility.

The most important moral question of the 21st Century is whether human life has intrinsic moral worth simply and merely because it is human. A sanctity/equality of human life ethic understands that simply being human matters morally. Otherwise, the door is opened wide to oppression, exploitation, and even killing of the weak and vulnerable. Under this view, there are just some things that should not be done to human beings—whether nascent, disabled, or elderly.

But many bioethicists and scientists disagree that simply being a member of the human species conveys moral value. In this view, only “persons,” a moral status earned by possessing minimal mental abilities, really count. Under personhood theory, as this philosophy is sometimes called, some human beings are not persons, meaning that these unfortunates do not have the right to life and can be used instrumentally as if they were mere natural resources. 

And this is precisely what happens in embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Nascent humans are destroyed and harvested for their cells as so many corn crops—which is why it is so controversial. And this is also why President Bush imposed significant federal funding restrictions on ESCR—to protect the value of nascent human life. 

We can now see why ACT’s research non-breakthrough was deemed worthy of so much fuss. Most of the media hyped the ACT experiment as undermining Bush’s policy. Now, the stories reported breathlessly, scientists would be free to pursue embryonic stem cell research to their heart’s content. 

Ironically—rather than toppling Bush’s policy, it instead validated it. Indeed, ACT’s attempt to create stem cell lines without destroying embryos—and the media’s hyping the story—shows precisely how successful President Bush has been in keeping the ethical focus of the science community fixed on the important moral issues involved with destructive embryonic research. 

And here’s some more good news. Scientists throughout the world are working hard to develop methods to obtain cells with all the scientific potential hoped for from embryonic stem cells—and without harming embryos in any way. 

One such area of investigation is Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), currently being tested in animal studies. If ANT works, it would create stem cell lines without also bringing new human embryos into existence. [see sidebar interview with Dr. Hurlbut] Another potentially exciting avenue of research comes out of Japan where scientists have reverted rat skin cells to an embryonic-like state. And of course, adult stem cell research continues to show much promise in developing efficacious medical treatments in early human trials.

So this is the bottom line: We should never underestimate the imagination and capability of scientists to solve difficult scientific problems. That is why it is crucial that we maintain proper ethical parameters around stem cell research. So long as we continue to insist that nascent human lives matter morally, there seems little doubt that inspired scientists will be able to develop a powerful and beneficial stem cell sector without undermining the intrinsic value of human life.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.