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Ethical concerns: research on previously extracted stem cells

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A companion essay deals with the extraction of stem cells from embryos.

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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 the President's 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.

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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.

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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:

bullet 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.
bullet 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 resultant research.

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.

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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 quality.

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 human person.

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:

Step Bank robbery case Stem cell case
1 A person, in the form of a human adult, is murdered. A person, in the form of a human embryo, is murdered.
2 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.
3 Parts are generally transported to another hospital. Stem cells transported to a laboratory and cultured there.
4 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:

bullet In the robbery case, the murderer was unrelated to the researchers; in the stem cell case, there is a supplier / consumer relationship.
bullet 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.
bullet The stem cells that are eventually used for research are not the original material, but many generations removed from the initial cells.
bullet In the robbery case, the option to transplanting would be to let the body's organs rot.
bullet 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:

bullet In the bank robbery case, the crime of homicide has been committed.
bullet In the stem cell case:
bullet According to most pro-lifers, a homicide has been committed
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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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." 1

bullet 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.
bullet 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 effectiveness.
bullet 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 accuracy.

The question remains whether it is morally acceptable to use Nazi data in modern-day studies.

bullet 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:
bullet 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 experiments.
bullet 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 example:
bullet 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."
bullet Still others feel that it is morally acceptable to use the Nazi data under certain restrictions, if:
bullet The information has the potential of helping people.
bullet The article contains a condemnation of the experiments and of the Nazi doctors who conducted them.
bullet The article also contains a description of the suffering of the victims.

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:

bullet 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 origin.
bullet 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 cell research.

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Reactions to President Bush's decision:

Conservative Christian groups split over the morality of President George W. Bush's decision to:

bullet Stop future killing/murdering of embryos by banning future extraction of stem cells for research in government labs.
bullet 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:

bullet 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.
bullet 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
bullet 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 beings. He does allow experimentation on descendents of previously extracted stem cells, which are not persons, and cannot become persons.
bullet 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
bullet, 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
bullet 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." 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.
bullet The Christian Gallery news service reported that President Bush "is now listed on The 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." 11

However, other Christian groups supported Bush's decision, generally differentiated between descendents of already extracted stem cells and the killing of their embryo source:

bullet 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
bullet 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
bullet 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.

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References used in the above essay:

  1. Baruch C. Cohen, "The ethics of using medical data from Nazi experiments," Jewish Law Articles, at:
  2. "Catholic bishops criticize Bush policy on embryo research," at:
  3. C. Ben Mitchell, "First-Person: Will we use medical treatments developed by ill-gotten means?," at:
  4. Wendy Wright, "Profit from killing human beings," at:
  5. "The Nuremberg Code," an excerpt from "Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10. Nuremberg, October 1946–April 1949. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O, 1949–1953."
  6. "FRC's Ken Connor on President Bush's decision on embryonic stem cell research," at:
  7. "Resources on human experimentation by Nazi doctors: General resources on the Holocaust," at:
  8. Christine Hall, "Bush broke stem cell pledge, say some pro-lifers,", at:
  9. "Falwell Confidential," Liberty Alliance, 2001-AUG-10.
  10. "Dr. James C. Dobson applauds Bush decision on stem cell research," 2001-AUG-9, Focus on the Family, at:
  11. "Bush added to the Nuremberg Files," The Christian Gallery, at:

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

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