HUMAN STEM CELLS
Ethical concerns: research on previously
extracted stem cells
A companion essay deals with the
extraction of stem cells from embryos.
The potential and the politics:
Stem cells from embryos have the potential to develop into most of the 220
different cell types in the human body. They can be coaxed to develop into brain neurons,
heart muscle, skin, etc. Procedures have already been developed which cause stem cells to
form a pig's urinary sphincter muscle. In the future, methods may be found that
would cause them to develop into a complete human organ, like a heart or kidney.
However, stem cells do not have the potential to become a
newborn. Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from diseases and disorders
which might be cured or treated in the future with stem cells.
According to President George W. Bush, there are 60 lines or cultures of stem
cells growing in American laboratories. Scientists who actually work with stem
cells have suggested that there may be as few as ten. Under
decision of 2001-AUG-9, government research using these cells can proceed.
However, no stem cells that have been extracted from embryos after the date of
his decision can be used.
The ethics of President Bush's decision have been actively debated. The
purpose of this essay is not to offer conclusions, but to challenge the reader
to think through the matter for themselves.
Origin of stem cells:
Each of these cultures of stem cells is traceable back to a spare embryo --
one of about 110,000 such embryos stored at U.S. fertility clinics.
Clinic physicians performing an in-vitro fertilization procedure will typically remove about two dozen ova from a woman.
All will be
fertilized with sperm from her husband, partner or an unrelated
donor. Three or four vigorous embryos are selected and implanted in the woman's
womb. With luck, one will start a pregnancy and eventually produce a newborn.
Most will be deep-frozen in
liquid nitrogen, for possible future use. On very rare occasions, one will be thawed out
and its stem cells extracted. The embryo dies in the process. The cells are
transferred to a laboratory for research. There they can be grown, producing
daughter stem cells, grand-daughter cells, etc. As of 2001-AUG, it is not known
how long these cultures will continue to propagate. It may continue indefinitely.
Ethics of the extraction and use of stem cells:
The ethical concerns about the extraction process itself are directly related to
beliefs about when human personhood begins:
||Most pro-lifers believe that this happens at conception. This is
approximately the time when a new, unique human DNA is produced. They regard
the extraction process as a murder of a human being. It is unethical under all
circumstances, even if it holds great promise to eventually help people.
||Most pro-choicers believe that human personhood develops later in
pregnancy. They regard the extraction of stem cells as a procedure that kills
an embryo which has not reached the status of person. The embryo is a mass of
undifferentiated cells at this stage; it has no arms, legs, head, body, brain,
heart, internal organs, sensory organs, consciousness, awareness of its
surroundings, etc. Pro-choicers generally
feel that the extraction is ethical if positive results are expected from the
This essay deals with the ethics of using stem cells that are already
extracted, and propagating in various laboratories. The stem cells that are
actually used in research experiments are thus daughters, grand-daughters or
-- more likely -- many generations removed from the original stem cells. The
question is whether it is ethical to use them in research projects that may
produce cures and treatments for dozens of serious human disorders and diseases.
Arguments from a bank robbery analogy:
One might explore the ethics of using existing stem cells by considering an analogy: Suppose a person is murdered during a bank
robbery. The body of the victim is rushed to a hospital. The next of kin give their
permission for organs to be removed from the body. Doctors operate and
extract eye corneas, kidneys, the heart, etc. These are later
supplied to other doctors who transplant them into many ill people -- restoring
sight, replacing a diseased heart, transplanting a kidney, etc. Some of these organs might be used for research.
The tragedy of the death of an innocent person is somewhat alleviated by the
knowledge that many peoples' lives have been saved, extended or improved in
If we accept the belief of most
pro-choicers, then the analogy between the bank robbery and the use of stem
cells is not exact. That is because they reject the concept that an embryo is a
However, if we
accept the belief of most pro-lifers -- that each frozen embryo is a human person -- then we have a close
analogy between the above scenario and the harvesting of stem cells:
||Bank robbery case
||Stem cell case
||A person, in the form of a human adult, is murdered.
||A person, in the form of a human embryo,
||Internal parts (organs) are removed,
generally with the permission of the next of kin.
||Internal parts (stem cells) are removed,
generally with the permission of the next of kin.
||Parts are generally transported to another
||Stem cells transported to a laboratory and
||Parts directly used to cure or treat disorder or
disease; some parts used in research.
||Stem cells, many generations removed from
the original cells are used in research, hopefully leading to cure or
treatment of disorder and diseases.
There are also differences between the two examples:
||In the robbery case, the murderer was unrelated to the researchers; in
the stem cell case, there is a supplier / consumer relationship.
||In the robbery case, the murder was presumably motivated by a desire for money
for personal gain;
in the stem cell case, it was motivated by a desire to help sick people.
||The stem cells that are eventually used for research are not the original material,
but many generations removed from the initial cells.
||In the robbery case, the option to transplanting would be to let the
body's organs rot.
||In the stem cell case, the option would be to allow the extracted stem cells to
die without being used.
Some medical ethicists might conclude that:
||In the bank robbery case, the crime of homicide has been committed.
||In the stem cell case:|
||According to most pro-lifers, a homicide has
||According to most pro-choicers, no crime has
been committed. A spare human embryo, which is not a human person, has
been killed for its stem cells.
||In both cases, many would argue that it is ethical to use living, human organs or cells for
medical research, even if the situation by which the material became
available involved an immoral act.|
Arguments from an analogy to Nazi medical experiments on humans:
Another analogy is the human experiments conducted on Nazi concentration and
death camp inmates.
"Following World War II, leading Nazi doctors were brought to justice
before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Twenty doctors were
charged with War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. The Nuremberg trial of
the doctors revealed evidence of sadistic human experiments conducted at the
Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps."
||In one example, prisoners wearing various types of clothing were
thrown into vats of ice water. The experimenters measured the victims'
body temperature, other data, and the time that
it took them to die. The purpose of the tests were to evaluate samples of
textile materials to protect sailors and submarine personnel who ended up
in the ocean.
||Serious wounds were intentionally inflicted on hundreds of victims,
and infected with various bacteria such as streptococcus, gas gangrene and
tetanus. Sulfa drugs and other treatments were then evaluated for
||In another case, male gay prisoners were forced to engage in sexual intercourse with women
prisoners. They were sent to
the camp brothel at Flossenburg. "Ten Ravensbruck women provided the
services with little success. The women [were later]...shipped to
Auschwitz" for execution. The
purpose of the experiments was to find a way of changing the sexual
orientation of gay men. The fate of the gay men is unknown. However, the
life expectancy of gays in Nazi concentration camps was quite short. This
example was a far less brutal form of experimentation. We included it
because we have referred to these experiments
elsewhere on our web site as one of many indicators that adult's
sexual orientation cannot be changed.
There is a general consensus, except perhaps among some neo-Nazis, that
such experiments are profoundly immoral. None of the victims were
volunteers. The experiments often caused great pain to the subjects, and
generally resulted in their death. Much of the data is of questionable
The question remains whether it is morally acceptable to use Nazi data in
||Some feel that the data should never be used. The "data is morally
tainted and soaked with the blood of its victims." 1
One example is:|
||Dr. Robert Pozos is the Director of the Hypothermia Laboratory
at the University of Minnesota of Medicine at Duluth, MN. His lab
attempts to develop more effective methods of of warming frozen people
who have been exposed to extreme cold. There exists a paucity of
accurate information. What is available comes from two sources:
experiments on animals and Nazi experimentation on humans. Dr. Pozos
wrote an article which included some Nazi data. Dr. Arnold Relman,
editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, vetoed the article
because the data was obtained from profoundly unethical human
||Others feel that it is immoral to not use the data under
certain conditions. If there is the chance that some good can come out of
the victims' suffering and tragic deaths, then the data must be used. For
||Dr. John Haward is a biologist at Victoria University in
British Columbia, Canada. He used some Nazi data to estimate the
effectiveness of cold water survival suits. He commented: "I don't
want to have to use the Nazi data, but there is no other and will be no
other in an ethical world. I've rationalized it a bit. But not to use it
would be equally bad. I'm trying to make something constructive out of
it. I use it with my guard up, but it's useful."
||Still others feel that it is morally acceptable to use the Nazi data
under certain restrictions, if:|
||The information has the potential of helping people.
||The article contains a condemnation of the experiments and of the
Nazi doctors who conducted them.
||The article also contains a description of the suffering of the
The closeness of the analogy between stem cell research and the use of
data from Nazi experimentation is dependent (as usual) on one's belief
concerning the timing of the start human personhood:
||If you believe that human personhood begins at or near the instant of
conception, then the extraction of stem cells is a form of homicide. This
is because the process murders the embryo. The stem cells are analogous to
the Nazi data. Deaths of individual humans were involved in both cases.
The use of stem cells in research are thus analogous to the use of Nazi
data. Some feel that the stem cells are tainted because a person was
murdered during their extraction. According to public opinion polls, most
pro-lifers believe that the stem cells should be used, in spite of their
||If you believe that human personhood happens weeks or months after
conception, then the extraction of stem cells involves the killing of an
embryo which is not a human person. Even if implanted, probably 75% of the
embryos would not survive. All of the embryos are spares that were left
over after in-vitro fertilization procedures. If their stem cells are not
removed, they would probably eventually lose their ability to initiate a
pregnancy or die -- either from equipment malfunction, or from old age, or
by a deliberate decision by the fertility lab. Some feel that whatever
degree of immorality is associated with the killing of spare embryos, it
is more than compensated for by the potential benefit to humanity of stem
Reactions to President Bush's decision:
Conservative Christian groups split over the morality of President George W.
Bush's decision to:
||Stop future killing/murdering of embryos by banning future extraction of stem
cells for research in government labs.
||Allow government researchers to resume stem cell research, but only
if they use existing cultures.
Some conservative Christian groups opposed Bush's decision, often
blurring the lines between the killing of embryos and the research use of
descendents of already-extracted stem cells:
||U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops condemned the decision and hoped
"that President Bush will return to a principled stand against
treating some human lives as nothing more than objects to be manipulated
and destroyed for research purposes." 2 This
comment appears to misunderstand the president's decision. His ruling
does treat human embryos as "human lives" that are not to be
destroyed. He allows research on existing stem cells, but they are not
human lives. They are simply descendents of stem cells, which have the potential to develop into
tissue or an
organ. They are not a person, nor can they become a person.
||Ben Mitchell, a consultant on
biomedical and life issues for the Ethics & Religious Liberty
Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote an
article for the Baptist Press, saying, in part: "Make
no mistake about it, these cells have been harvested by killing human
embryos. They are morally tainted and any benefits from research on
those cells will be ill-gotten gain...Our tax dollars should not be used
to fund research we find morally reprehensible. Yet, President Bush's
decision makes us pay for tainted research. It's like forcing us to eat
our own offspring and charging us for the meal." 3
||Concerned Women for America spokesperson, Wendy Wright,
wrote an article "Profit from killing human beings." 4
She wrote, in part: "The President's position contradicts the
Nuremberg Code, 5 ethical guidelines set down
after World War II, which prohibits experimentation that knowingly
causes injury or death to humans...Remember,
this is not about a ban on embryonic stem cell research. It is about
whether American taxpayers will be forced to be accomplices in research
that encourages killing human beings." Again, she seems to
have mistaken the President's ruling. He specifically prohibits
government experimentation on embryos, which he and Ms. Wright consider to be human
does allow experimentation on descendents of previously extracted stem
cells, which are not persons, and cannot become persons.
||Family Research Council spokesperson,
Ken Connor wrote, in part: "By permitting research on existing
stem cells lines obtained by past killing of embryos, Mr. Bush attempts
to put a redemptive gloss on previous bad acts and to distance himself
from the immoral acts that resulted in the killing of embryonic human
beings. But by casting such research in a positive light, he will
encourage members of Congress to advocate additional research which
kills additional embryos so that even more stem cell lines can be
created and even more people can be helped by such killing." 6
||CovenantNews.com, in their "Murder by Abortion" page
for 2001-AUG-15, included among hyperlinks to President Bush's decision a link to a web page
titled: "Resources on human experimentation by Nazi doctors: General
resources on the Holocaust." 7
||Eagle Forum spokesperson, Lori Cole,
said: "President Bush broke his word to the American people. Congress
should immediately reinforce the 1995 law to ensure that all embryos
will be protected [from] experimental research, regardless of who pays
for it." 8 Cole seems to be unaware
that the President's decision protects all existing and future embryos
from stem cell extraction for government research. She also seems to be unaware that the
president does not have the authority to ban stem cell extraction for
research by private companies.
||The Christian Gallery news service reported that President Bush "is
now listed on
Nuremberg Files, an Internet database that received massive national
and international publicity because it claims to be a list of abortion
supporters guilty of crimes against humanity. According to the editorial
staff of the Nuremberg Files, Bush was added to the list because his
decision announced on September 9, 2001, to use fetal stem cells for
tax-payer funded medical experiments violates fundamental principles of
human rights established by the original Nuremberg Tribunal."
However, other Christian groups supported Bush's decision, generally
differentiated between descendents of already extracted stem cells and the
killing of their embryo source:
||Jerry Falwell, one of the most influential Fundamentalist pastors, stated in his "Falwell Confidential" newsletter: "...President
George W. Bush has limited federal funding of scientific research on stem
cells that are derived solely and I stress solely on embryos that have
already been destroyed. He will grant no federal dollars for research on stem
cells that involve the killing of human embryos....I believe Mr. Bush adopted
the only viable solution to this moral puzzle." 9
||A Focus on the Family press release stated, in part: "Since
1995, Congress has banned the use of federal funds for research that destroys
human embryos. The Bush Administration's position will allow federally funded
researchers to experiment only with stem cell lines already derived from
embryos previously destroyed in private laboratories. 'We grieve for the lives
of these embryos,' said Dobson. 'But we are delighted that the government will
not take part in killing any more.' " 10
||Jaydee Hanson, assistant general secretary at the United Methodist
Church's General Board of Church and Society said that Bush has
"narrowed the discussion as much as he could narrow it. If his
administration wanted to go ahead and do any funding of any embryonic
research, at least he's not funding the destruction of embryos. At least
he's not permitting research on cloned embryos." He predicted that: "We're
going to come back to argue this when ... the researchers want to work on
more than 60 cell lines."
Comments by researchers and health groups has been muted. Some are
concerned that the limited number of existing stem cell lines contains
insufficient genetic diversity to allow effective research. Others are
concerned that the existing cultures may stop propagating in the future.
References used in the above essay:
Baruch C. Cohen, "The ethics of using medical data from Nazi
experiments," Jewish Law Articles, at:
"Catholic bishops criticize Bush policy on embryo research,"
C. Ben Mitchell, "First-Person: Will we use medical treatments
developed by ill-gotten means?," at:
Wendy Wright, "Profit from killing human beings," at:
"The Nuremberg Code," an excerpt from "Trials of War
Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council
Law No. 10. Nuremberg, October 1946April 1949. Washington, D.C.: U.S.
"FRC's Ken Connor on President Bush's decision on embryonic stem
cell research," at:
"Resources on human experimentation by Nazi doctors: General
resources on the Holocaust," at:
Christine Hall, "Bush broke stem cell pledge, say some pro-lifers,"
"Falwell Confidential," Liberty Alliance, 2001-AUG-10.
"Dr. James C. Dobson applauds Bush decision on stem cell research,"
2001-AUG-9, Focus on the Family, at:
"Bush added to the Nuremberg Files," The Christian Gallery,
Copyright © 1998 to 2001 incl., by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-AUG-14
Latest update: 2001-AUG-16
Author: B.A. Robinson