Defining a Life: The Ethical Questions of Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Revised)

One of the most heated political battles in the United States in recent years has been over the morality of embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic stem cell debate has polarized the country into those who argue that such research holds promises of ending a great deal of human suffering and others who condemn such research as involving the abortion of a potential human life. If any answer to the ethical debate surrounding this particular aspect of stem cell research exists, it is a hazy one at best. The question facing many scientists and policymakers involved in embryonic stem cell research is, which is more valuable – the life of a human suffering from a potentially fatal illness or injury, or the life of human at one week of development? While many argue that embryonic stem cell research holds the potential of developing cures for a number of illnesses that affect many individuals, such research is performed at the cost of destroying a life and should therefore not be pursued.

Stem cells are pluripotent cells of the body which are “undifferentiated.” This means that stem cells can ultimately give rise to any type of body tissue. Thus stem cells have the potential to cure a vast number of diseases and physical ailments including Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and heart disease. Consequently, stem cell research and the development of associated medical applications are of great interest to the scientific and medical community. The area of stem cell research involving human embryonic stem cells is of particular interest in that embryonic stem cells are derived from week-old blastocysts developed from in vitro fertilized eggs. As opposed to adult stem cells, which must undergo a complicated process of de-differentiation prior to application, embryonic stem cells are capable of undergoing directed differentiation. In the second process, scientists solely manipulate the culture in which the embryonic cells are grown or directly alter the genetic content of the cells. Herein lies the heart of the ethical debate over the morality of destroying a human embryo in order to derive embryonic stem cells for treatment.

Those in support of embryonic stem cell research claim that the week-old blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells are derived are merely a cluster of cells and thus do not constitute a human being. Because these cells are “not human,” the embryos should not be afforded the same human rights as are granted to other more advanced stages of cell growth. Many liberals and conservatives alike argue that the potential benefits far outweigh the moral concerns, and for this reason, embryonic stem cell research should be pursued. President Obama issued an executive order revoking President Bush’s previous order that limited funding of research involving human embryonic stem cells for its violation of human rights:

Research involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells has the potential to lead to better understanding and treatment of many disabling diseases and conditions. Advances over the past decade in this promising scientific field have been encouraging, leading to broad agreement in the scientific community that the full range of promising stem cell research should be supported by Federal funds. (White House)

The President’s executive order indicates belief in the medical potential and application embryonic stem cell research. Dr. Dan S. Kaufman, who is an associate director at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, supports embryonic stem cell research, arguing that the embryos used in the study of embryonic stem cells come from fertilized zygotes that would be otherwise destroyed:

It is important to recognize that human embryonic stem cells all come from embryos created in excess by fertility clinics. All of these embryos will be destroyed if they are not donated by couples specifically to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical research. The question then is, what is the most respectful way to treat these valuable embryos? (qtd. in Hubbard)

Dr. Kaufman and other supporters of embryonic stem cell efforts assert that by utilizing embryos for research purposes that were otherwise intended for disposal, researchers are in fact paying more respect to the life of that embryo. Such a claim elicits ardent objections from those who do not support embryonic stem cell research.

Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research argue that the potential benefits of such research do not justify the termination of a young human life. There is no question, they say, that even at the blastocyst stage a young human embryo is a form of human life. Therefore, opponents argue, as a human life, embryos possess the same rights and are thus entitled to the same protections as are afforded to other human beings. Dr. Jim Eckman, a member of advisory board of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research (NCER), is vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research because he believes that it is a violation of the life, dignity, and rights of human beings: “Failure to protect embryonic and fetal human life, the most vulnerable of human beings, erodes the moral fiber of our society. An assault against any innocent human being is an assault on humanity in general. Since respect for human life is a cornerstone of civilization, human embryonic stem cell research will weaken the moral foundation of our society” (Eckman). Similar to Eckman, opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that life begins at conception, the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, and consequentially the destruction of a week-old human embryo is the destruction of a life. Though the majority of critical voices appreciate the effort to discover and develop cures for the benefit of suffering individuals through stem cells, they promote utilizing stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos, arguing that such research will not cause harm to another human being. Recent scientific studies have made significant progress studying stem cells obtained from adult cells and umbilical cords, neither of which involves the abortion of a human embryo.

While the arguments in support of human embryonic stem cell research are well intentioned, some have a number of flaws. A claim made by many supporters is that all embryos used in embryonic stem cell research will be destroyed anyway, so it is ultimately more respectful to use the embryo for research than to allow it to go to waste. There are, however, other options for those parents of embryos stored in fertility clinics, one of which is to donate the embryos to other couples struggling with infertility (qtd. in Hubbard). Additionally, the number of embryos ultimately required to fully develop and apply embryonic stem cell research will vastly exceed the number of frozen embryos currently provided by fertility clinics. A further development is the prospect of therapeutic cloning in which embryos are cloned for the sole purpose of research.  Farming human embryos sounds like something from a science fiction novel, yet such an idea has been considered increasingly possible with recent scientific advancements. Cloning for scientific purposes begs the question, at what point does life begin such that it becomes unethical to destroy it?

With continuing technological developments, the point at which a child is viable outside the mother’s womb becomes earlier and earlier. Therefore, the attempt to define a point at which life begins past the initial point of conception is futile. As more advanced technologies continue to be developed, society should not continue to define and re-define what constitutes a human life. Life begins at conception, for it is from this point that an embryo contains all genetic information necessary to develop into a human being. Dr. Eckman asserts, “Every human being has a right to be protected from discrimination – Human embryonic stem cell research discriminates against human embryos on the basis of developmental immaturity” (Eckman). As is suggested by Eckman, simply because an embryo at one week is not as physically mature as one at nine months, it is not any less human, and should therefore not be treated as such.

As society further progresses, advancements will continue in the field of science. Humans must be cautious of compromising the moral standards that define human civilization for the further acquisition of scientific knowledge. There comes a point at which manipulation of life’s natural processes crosses an ethical boundary. Although motivated by good intentions, such procedures often involve actions of a morally questionable nature. It is necessary that our practices remain ethical and that we uphold the value of a human life, as this is the cornerstone of human society. Embryonic stem cell research is one such operation that forces scientists, policy makers, and the larger society to define what constitutes a human life and to find an answer to the crucial question: Is it morally acceptable to violate the rights of a human life for the for the sake of medical progress?



Works Cited


Eckman, Dr. Jim. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Issues in Perspective.

2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.



“Fact Sheet on Presidential Executive Order.” The White House. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.



Hubbard, James. “Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons.”

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons. The Survival

Doctor. 2008. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.





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One Response to Defining a Life: The Ethical Questions of Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Revised)

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