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Ethical concerns: extracting stem cells

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A companion essay deals with the research use of existing stem cells.

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What happens to "spare" stem cells?

There are about 360 fertility labs in the U.S. that conduct in-vitro fertilization procedures. They typically extract about 24 ova from each woman client, and fertilize them with a male donor's sperm -- typically her husband's. Two to four of the resultant embryos are then selected and implanted in her womb in the hopes that one will develop and continue a pregnancy to term. Some clinics discard the excess embryos or use them for training purposes. Most clinics deep-freeze the other 20 or so embryos in liquid nitrogen. Some may be used in the future if no pregnancy resulted, and a repeated attempt at impregnation is desired. A few are donated by the couple that "owns" them to another infertile couple. But this is rare, because most clients dislike the idea of having what is in effect their child living in another family. Most become spare, permanently unneeded, frozen embryos .

Past estimates of the number of frozen embryos in the U.S. vary from 100,000 to 188,000. However "experts said that was little more than a guess, and even if it was accurate at one time, it is long out of date now. Plans for what would be the first careful national accounting are being prepared now by the reproductive medicine society." 1

Some clinics keep the embryos alive in liquid nitrogen indefinitely -- or at least until an operator error or equipment malfunction kills them. One source says that about 25% of frozen and thawed embryos do not survive between the first and second impregnation procedure. This loss rate appears to be related to the quality of the freezing and thawing processes, not to the length of time they have remained frozen. If an embryo survives the freezing process, it will probably remain viable for decades. Some have speculated a lifetime of hundreds of years if kept frozen. Experiments on mouse embryos showed no loss in their ability to produce pups after having been frozen for 25 years. Human embryos would probably behave similarly.  13

Other clinics simply discard or destroy the spare embryos. Some embryos are simply flushed down a sink drain. Some are transferred to a medical waste bin where they are later incinerated. Some simply expose the embryos to the air and let them die; this normally takes four days or less.

One source speculates that hundreds of thousands of unused embryos have been destroyed in fertility clinics. 1 This compares to the few dozen of embryos which have had their stem cells removed and used to create stem cell lines in the lab. Surprisingly, nobody seems to care or object. Even pro-life groups appear to be silent on this matter.

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The ethics of extracting stem cells from embryos:

There are no major ethical concerns about the extraction of adult stem cells, from umbilical cords, skin, bone marrow, etc., as long as the donor gives permission. However, at this time, the only way to obtain the most potentially useful stem cells is believed to be from human embryos. First, surplus embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures in fertility clinics are thawed. The inner cell mass of an embryo is extracted. Stem cells are all that remain. The embryo is killed in the process. This raises the same ethical questions and conflicts that are often heard when the ethics of abortion are discussed:

An ova, spermatozoon, pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, and newborn are all forms of human life. They are clearly alive and contain human DNA. Everyone agrees that a newborn baby is not only human life but a human person. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ in their belief of when human life becomes a human person, and thus should have its life protected.

bullet Many pro-lifer believe that not only does human personhood start at or shortly after conception, but that the pre-embryo receives a soul.
bullet Pro-choicers generally believe that human personhood is achieved later in gestation.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) is opposed by many pro-lifers, mainly Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants. They feel that the embryos from which the stem cells are often extracted are human persons. Since the embryos are killed when the stem cells are removed, most pro-lifers view the extraction procedure as murder and a form of experimentation on human bodies. As Gregory Koukl, president of Stand to Reason writes: "Whether it's right or not to take that life depends entirely on what it is we're killing. Let me put it as clearly as I know how. If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being, no justification for either abortion of ESCR is necessary. However, if it is a human being, no justification for taking his or her life is adequate. This single, succinct ethic is adequate to cover contingencies on both sides of the question." 14 In the case of ESCR, it is a zygote which is killed in the process of extracting its stem cells, not an embryo or fetus. It is, at this point, a mass of individuated cells; they haven't developed into bone, skin, heart, liver and any of the other 216 cell types in the human body. If cell individuation has already occurred, then they zygote would no longer have any usefulness in ESCR.

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Lawyers and medical ethicists in favor of embryo stem cell research:

bullet Lawyers from the NIH, and others, argue that stem cells are incapable of growing into a complete person. They may be coaxed to develop into nerve cells or heart cells. But, at most, they can become an organ, not a complete living person. They cannot be considered a form of human life, even within the definition of pro-life supporters. This exempts stem cell research from the Congressional ban on embryo research. Those regulations were created to prevent experiments with embryos that had the potential to develop to the fetal and newborn stages. The rules simply do not apply to stem cells.
bullet Stem cells can propagate themselves so that researchers can use cells that are many generations removed from their origin. Stem cells can be replicated and may be useable in an large number of studies.
bullet Stem cells have an enormous promise to benefit mankind -- to save lives and cure or treat diseases. This generates a very strong moral imperative to explore their potential.
bullet Almost all spare embryos in fertility clinics will eventually die, due to operator error or equipment malfunction. Spare embryos are also routinely destroyed by flushing them down a drain, by incinerating them, or by thawing them out and allowing them to die. They might as well have their stem cells extracted so that they can be of some use to humanity.

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Lawyers and medical ethicists opposed to embryo stem cell research:

bullet If one traced the history of a embryo stem cell back however many generations needed to get to its origin, one would find that an embryo was murdered. Since the extraction of the initial stem cells was a violation of NIH policy, any subsequent experimentation using those cells or their descendants is not only immoral but also in violation of government regulations. 2
bullet Those taking a pro-life stance generally believe that an embryo is a human being with a soul. Thus, the act of extracting stem cells from an embryo is murder. Stem cell research has been likened to lampshades made of human skin during the Nazi holocaust. They may be very attractive and useful lampshades; but a person was murdered during their construction.
bullet Linda Bevington, director of research for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity has stated: "A lot of proponents of the stem-cell research are saying these embryos are extras, and they'll never be implanted, and they're doomed/destined for destruction anyway, so we might as well just take their cells and create some therapies and some good. However, it is possible to adopt those embryos. It's often termed 'rescue surrogacy,' and so those embryos aren't necessarily destined for destruction. They can be implanted, and a healthy baby can be born." 3 A few embryos are "adopted" in this way in the U.S. every month. But many more frozen embryos are being created each month, and there are hundreds of thousands in storage.
bullet Robert George, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Princeton notes that embryos possess the epigenetic primordia for internally directed growth and maturation as distinct, self-integrating, human organisms. Because of this, he regards an embryo as being already—and not merely potentially—a living member of the human species. 4

This essay continues below

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A sampling of opposition from pro-life groups:

Pro-life groups and individuals view a fertilized ova and embryos as full human beings with a soul. Thus when stem cells are extracted from a surplus embryo, and the latter dies, they believe that a murder has occurred. It does not matter whether the stem cell extraction is done by a government researcher, or is done by an employee of a private company and sold to the government. Either way, a human person has been murdered in order to supply the cells. Many pro-life groups also oppose the use of already-existing stem cells, because if one were to trace back far enough in time, the ancestors of the present-day stem cells came from an embryo that was murdered. Many groups also oppose the regulations of some fertility clinics which call for the routine destruction of surplus embryos.

An article by Lutherans for Life used terms like "killing one innocent human being," "dismembering a living being," "extinguishing the torch of the smallest in our tribe," "killing embryonic children," "killing unborn children." Next to the article was a photograph of a embryo that appears to be seven or eight weeks old. The image is deceptive. Embryos from which stem cells are extracted are less than 14 days old. 6

Some recent comments by pro-life group include:

Right to Life Committee: (Undated): Spokesperson Douglas Johnson said that any embryo destruction of use of stem cells involves the murder of "non-consensual human subjects." 12

Focus on the Family: (Undated but copyrighted 2000): Focus on the Family is a Fundamentalist Christian group located in Colorado Springs, CO. They have issued a statement in opposition to stem cell research. Founder Dr. James Dobson wrote: "In order for scientists to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, a living, human embryo must be killed. It is never morally or ethically justified to kill one human being in order to help benefit another. By requiring the destruction of embryos, the tiniest human beings, embryonic stem cell research violates the medical ethic of 'Do No Harm.' " 7

Roman Catholic Church (USA): 2000-MAR-3: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to each senator urging them to stop stem cell research. They asked that the Stem Cell Research Act, S. 2015, be defeated. The bill had been sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter, (R-PA), and Tom Harkin, (D-IA). It would allow federal researchers to extract stem cells from surplus embryos. Referring to the stem cell harvesting procedure, Cardinal William H. Keeler said it "kills the unborn child." He noted that "NIH's own Human Embryo Research Panel and President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) have both conceded that the early human embryo deserves respect as a 'form of human life.' " He wrote that "no government should requisition innocent human beings for deadly experiments on the grounds that they are 'unwanted' or unpopular." Cardinal Keeler concluded by saying that S. 2015 would "demean human dignity by promoting the destruction of human life." 8

A group of pro-life organizations: 2001-MAR-8: Several pro-life organizations and individuals sued the federal government in an attempt to stop their future funding of stem cell research programs. The plaintiffs included:

bullet Nightlight Christian Adoptions: They argue that if stem cell research proceeds, then there won't be enough spare embryos left over for Nightlight's clients. The latter are couples who want to become pregnant by using a surplus, frozen embryos. There are at least 110,000 "spare" embryos stored in fertility clinics. We have been unable to find the total number of parents who want to become pregnant with other couple's embryos. One clinic has 40 embryos available for adoption; another has successfully implanted 11 embryos which have led to live births.
bullet An Indiana professor who is concerned that funding of programs involving stem cells harvested from embryos will hurt funding of adult stem cell research experiments.
bullet Human Life Advocates wants to stop the National Institutes of Health from "violating the existing ban against the destruction of human embryos directly or indirectly using taxpayer money." Their apparent concern is that a private organization may harvest stem cells from embryos and sell them to a group doing government funded research. 9

Roman Catholic Church (Canada): 2001-JUN: The Canadian Conference of Bishops issued a paper on stem cells. They expressed concern that research would encourage the production of spare embryos in fertility clinics and "will only aggravate the link between the process of in vitro fertilization and the destruction of human embryos." 10

Alliance for Life Ontario: 2001-JUL-6: Jakki Jeffs, Executive Director of Alliance for Life Ontario wrote a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star. She writes that if stem cell research resumes, that "for the first time in U.S. history, federal funding would be used for research that deliberately and intentionally destroys the human subject." 11

Conservative former presidential candidate and staunch pro-lifer Gary Bauer, called stem cell research "morally bankrupt." 5

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References used in the above essay:

  1. Carl T. Hall, "The forgotten embryo: Fertility clinics must store or destroy the surplus that is part of the process." SF Gate News, at:
  2. John Morgan, "NIH and human embryo research," at:
  3. Laura McGovern, "Heart Association backs stem-cell research," Focus on the Family, at: 
  4. Chuck Colson, "Embryonic Enigma," 2001-OCT-2, at:
  5. "Bush remains undecided, but the public favors embryo [sic] research," Wall Street Journal, 2001-JUN-29. Online at:
  6. "New federal guidelines will allow taxpayer funding of stem cell research," Lutherans for Life, at:
  7. "Focus on the Family statement on human embryo stem cell research," at:
  8. "United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," letter distributed to federal senators, 2000-MAR-3, at:
  9. "Pro-life groups sue U.S. over stem cell research," Tennessee Right to Live, at:
  10. "Canadian Conference of Bishops issues stem cell document," at:
  11. Jakki Jeffs, "An alternative exists to embryonic stem cell research," Toronto Star, 2001-JUL-6
  12. "Debate over stem cell research, cloning lead to 'strange bedfellows:' Religious views, attitudes about life and abortion influence options," AANEWS, 2001-JUL-7
  13. Private Email from a scientist who has personally frozen over 15,000 mouse and human embryos.
  14. Gregory Koukl, "Call to Action," Solid Ground newsletter, 2004-SEP/OCT.

Copyright 1998 to 2004, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-OCT-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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