Stem Cells – Cures at What Cost?


If you knew that someone who was healthy was going to die, would you want them to become an organ donor? This very scenario has been played out in China and elsewhere. Only these “donors” were not voluntary. Harvesting organs from death row prisoners horrifies us. There’s another scenario like this that is played out not in prisons, but in research laboratories: the harvesting of cells from tiny embryos. In both cases, the “patient” dies.

Embryonic stem cell research has been in the news a lot recently. Researchers have claimed that this is the way to find cures for cancer, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. You might recall that in previous commentaries, I discussed the science and the basic arguments behind these controversial stem cells. Today, let’s dig a little deeper.

Embryonic stem cells can be harvested only by destroying human embryos. This is the heart of the debate: is it justifiable to use human embryos for research? If you say “yes,” that means using some human beings as instruments to potentially help other human beings. We call this “instrumentalism,” and mainstream ethicists agree that this is wrong.

“But wait!” Some philosophers argue that embryos don’t qualify for moral status and protection, because these human beings have not reached a particular stage in human development such as implantation. What’s more, they were created in a Petri dish and will never grow inside a mother’s womb. So, they don’t have a future or moral status.

These distinctions are arbitrary and not based on the biological facts of human development. Human life deserves to be valued and protected, or at the very least the right not to be intentionally harmed. We should be wary of efforts to dehumanize or devalue these early human beings. Given a chance, they could grow up to be human adults – just like you or me.

A “middle of the road” approach towards embryonic stem cell research is to use so-called “leftover” embryos from fertility clinics that are in frozen storage. We are told that since these leftover embryos will be destroyed anyway, why not use them for the benefit of others? This is still instrumentalism, and it’s wrong. What’s more, this scheme is impractical. Most of the half-million or so frozen embryos are being held for future use by their own parents.[1] There simply are not enough embryos in existence to cure the number of people affected by even just one disease. Surprisingly, many parents who say they’ll donate their embryos at the time they are created, change their minds after a successful pregnancy.

Stem cells, as part of the broader field of regenerative medicine, do have great potential to both help and heal, which we applaud. Fortunately, there are two other sources of stem cells that don’t destroy a single human life. These stem cells are being used to treat over 70 diseases and have the potential to treat many more.[2]

As Christians we know that God values human life – even at the earliest stages. Destroying some human beings to benefit others--whether it’s on death row or in a research lab--is morally wrong. That kind of cure costs too much.

[1] DI Hoffman, et al., “Cryopreserved Embryos in the United States and Their Availability for Research,” Fertility and Sterility 79 (2003): 1063-1069. For a research brief of this article see (accessed September 7, 2010).

[2] For a list of diseases and conditions currently treated with adult stem cells see Stem Cell Research Facts, "Stem Cell Successes," available at (accessed September 7, 2010).


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