There is no doubt that stem cell therapy holds the promise of possible cures for many diseases that continue to plague the world today – diseases which conventional approaches have failed to cure. However, though this promise might be bright, the progress of stem cell technology is hindered by questions regarding the ethics of creating and destroying human embryos. It is interesting to see what these controversies are and what they center on.
The Human Embryonic Stem Cell (HESC)
Today human embryonic stem cells (HESCs) are harvested not from a woman’s body but from a laboratory or in vitro. First, an unfertilized egg is obtained and its nucleus is removed. This is called the host in this procedure. Then an adult cell is taken from the patient or the individual whose needs are to be served. The nucleus from that cell is removed and fused into the host. When this fusion happens, the cell undergoes cell division and grows to form a blastocyst, sometimes referred to as pre-embryo.
When this blastocyst is about four days, it will posses 200 to 250 cells, most of which form the outer covering called the trophoblast but its inner cell mass of about 30 cells will contain HESCs. These pluripotent cells are harvested and grown in the laboratory.
The Ethical Questions
A first group of ethical question for conservative persons in this whole procedure would be: Is it morally right to create human life outside of conventional male-female relations? This question has been asked by conservative churches that do not approve of in-vitro fertilization at all even as an option for infertile couples. Alongside this would be the question of how morally right is it to create embryos for a procedure that would surely terminate them? These questions of course point to the perspective that all embryos are children, not just masses of live tissue.
The second and even more crucial ethical question in this particular case revolves around the conviction that removing the HESCs from the blastocyst in effect kills something which is alive and which has the capacity to be a full grown human being. This brings to fore the basic question of when life begins – a question that has a plurality of answers depending on the philosophy of the parties responding.
Most people who object to HESC harvesting would aver that as soon as there is fertilization, human life exists. This line of thinking vests upon the blastocyst the moral status of a human being. Skeptics will however counter that this premise that the blastocyst is a complete person will not hold water because until 14th day after fertilization, the blastocyst can divide into twins or triplets. When then would the twin claim its moral status as a person because it was not present on the 5th day or 6th day after fertilization?
Others would reject the idea that a zygote is a human being. Their objection would be based on the scientific observation that until a certain number of has been reached, the cells do not act as a coordinated whole; nor do they function as a unit. Therefore, the zygote cannot be given the moral status of a person. Some would then say that the human person only begins to exist when the cells begin to differentiate.
Legally, there are varying opinions about when the human personhood begins. Some opinions and legislation will say at 20 weeks, the fetus is viable so that fetus can be referred to as a person. Others will say that when there is brain activity that is the time the fetus becomes a person. Still others would say on the 14th day to the 21st day, when segmentation takes place; the cells differentiate; twins are formed - this is when personhood is attained.
There is no doubt that the ethical debates and controversies will persist for a long, long time. The ethical and philosophical questions that surround embryonic stem cells are serious questions which cannot be dismissed but they are also questions that people must face and answer as individuals. In the meantime, stem cell research will surely be sustained – regardless of all the controversies – because of very real and urgent needs in the medical field.