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The Ethics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By Louis Guenin

As a public service, the ISSCR provides this page to assist readers who wish to inquire into the moral debate concerning embryonic stem cell research.

Introduction: Thinking About Ethics
Ethics is not a specialized body of knowledge. Ethics is a conversation about questions. In that conversation, everyone has a place. We all have moral intuitions. Concerning embryonic stem cell research, the question that we face takes a familiar form: does the end justify the means? In some moral situations, one or more of us might answer that question in the affirmative. For example, someone might conclude that the end of teaching lifelong lessons to a child justifies imposing discipline as a means. In other situations, it may seem that the end does not justify the means. Most of us would not approve of robbing a bank as a means to the end of helping the poor.

Moral Treatment of Embryos
In the case of embryonic stem cell research, the end that scientists hope to achieve is the relief of human suffering. That this is a humanitarian and worthy end is not in dispute. The controversy is about the means, namely, the consumption of donated embryos. More particularly, embryonic stem cell research and therapy would use donated embryos that, by virtue of donor instructions, will never enter a uterus. Is it permissible to use those means to that end? Ancient religious texts provide little guidance. The ancients did not understand embryology, did not imagine that scientists might create and nurture what we now understand as embryos in the laboratory. Nor can we get an answer from laboratory experiments. There is no test for whether an embryo is a person. Instead we are left to our own devices, to our own moral reasoning.

Humanitarian Hopes
Powerful motivation for setting our minds to this task comes from the vision of scientists about what regenerative medicine might accomplish with stem cells derived from embryos. Shortly after the discovery in 1998 of ways to nurture embryonic stem cells in the laboratory, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Harold Varmus, M. D., described the promise of this frontier in testimony before Congress. The embryonic stem cells of which Dr. Varmus spoke differ from the stem cells of developed humans (the latter often called "adult" stem cells). Embryonic stem cells possess the attribute of pluripotency, which is to say that they are capable of issuing in any cell type except the placenta. Cells in the developed human in some cases possess the attribute of multipotency, which is to say that they may issue in more than one cell type. Cells in the developed human, so far as is known, are not pluripotent. More information about the scientific promise of pluripotent embryonic stem cells may be learned from resources on human embryonic stem cells collected by the University of Wisconsin.

Moral Debate Concerning Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Our task is to decide how we should act toward an embryo, and whether we should recognize, as we do among adults, distinctions between embryos of various types and in various circumstances. We immediately encounter the question of what beings we should classify as "persons" for purposes of the duty not to kill persons. Answering that question with the view that not every embryo should be classified as a person for purposes of that duty, the Protestant theologian Ronald Cole-Turner, M. Div., Ph.D., has offered a Christian moral defense of humanitarian embryo use.

In contrast, Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D., of Georgetown University states a Catholic case against embryo use. As is well known, the official teaching of the Holy See of the Roman Catholic is unequivocal in its opposition to the use of embryos as means. For one who holds that we should treat every embryo as a person for purposes of the duty not to kill, embryo-destructive experiments could gain justification only if it were argued that it is sometimes permissible to kill some persons in order to help other persons, and that is an uphill argument within any moral view. But the official teaching of the Holy See is not the only interpretation of Catholic tradition. Margaret Farley, Ph.D., of Yale University explains that in history and in present theological discussion, there is more than one Catholic line of reasoning, including a strong Catholic moral defense of humanitarian embryo use. For one who concludes that we are not obliged to refrain from using embryos that will never enter a womb, embryonic stem cell research is a case of fostering a worthy end by using only nonpersons as means.

Further Reading
For further discussions of the morality of embryo use in regenerative medicine, pro and con, see the ISSCR’s Resources Concerning the Ethics of Human Stem Cell Research.

Updated: February 2, 2005