One of the most promising avenues of medical research in the last generation has been embryonic stem cells. These cells are derived from the undifferentiated inner mass of cells that are formed within a human embryo. Because they can grow into all three derivatives of the 3 primary germ layers, it becomes possible to grow them into every one of the 200+ cell types in the human body when specified to do so.
Obtaining these stem cells means the embryo must be destroyed in the process, which creates an ethical question which must be answered. When does human life begin? And if it begins with the creation of cells, does the destruction of an embryo for research or medical treatment constitute murder?
These embryonic stem cell research pros and cons cannot answer to the ethics of such practices, but they can highlight the key points of this avenue of medical research.
What Are the Pros of Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
1. Most embryonic stem cells are from discarded embryos.
The IVF process which couples undergo to have children often creates numerous embryos that are discarded. At best, before embryonic stem cell research, these embryos were kept frozen and then stored indefinitely until they became non-viable. Then they were simply thrown away. This research allows for the embryos to serve a useful purpose.
2. They can be obtained ethically.
Embryonic stem cells can be harvested from the umbilical cord after a child has been born. Even if the cord blood is being stored for future personal treatments, it is still possible to obtain a line of stem cells that can be used for research purposes. The only way this type of stem cell harvest would be considered unethical would be if the umbilical cord stayed attached to the child, which we know does not happen.
3. Embryos do not have the capability of feeling pain.
The required components of the central nervous system for a developing fetus to sense pain are not developed until around 20 weeks after conception. Embryos that are used for stem cell research are harvested and then destroyed long before this development would occur. Many of the embryos are frozen and have their development stopped for some time before researchers harvest the cells in the first place.
4. All embryonic stem cells are harvested with consent.
Some doctor isn’t going to come into a hospital after a mother gives birth to steal the umbilical cord. There aren’t nefarious individuals from a health care provider breaking into IVF clinics to steal frozen embryos. The stem cells which are harvested from embryos are done so with permission. The donors of the embryos or the umbilical cord blood have given explicit permission for them to be used for medical research.
5. The field of embryonic stem cell research is still in its earliest stages.
The potential of what a line of embryonic stem cells could become is virtually unlimited. Because these cells could be activated to become any type of cell in the body, they could be used to grow organs, repair tendons and ligaments, stop tissue damage, cure cancer, end diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and much more. Because these lines can divide into specific cells and keep growing, their future potential is much higher than even what adult stem cells could potentially provide for future treatment.
6. Embryonic stem cells are never derived from eggs that are fertilized within a human.
The embryos which are used to collect stem cells are virtually all created within a laboratory setting in the first place. IVF clinics use the most viable embryos created in such a setting for implantation. The others are then either frozen or discarded. No eggs that are fertilized within a woman’s body are ever used for this type of research.
7. People treated with embryonic stem cells from cord blood have shown benefits.
Although official embryonic stem cell treatments have not been created yet, more than 6,000 people and 66 different diseases have been treated successfully with cord blood therapies. For children with immunodeficiency diseases who have been treated in such a way, success rates are approaching 90%.
What Are the Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
1. The reports of successful clinical treatments from embryonic stem cells are few.
Significant obstacles have been found in the treatment-related research of embryonic stem cells to this date. Unstable gene expressions, tumor formation, and an inability to activate the cells to their specific cell purpose are the three most common challenges that this research currently faces.
2. There is always the possibility of rejection.
Embryonic stem cells, even when activated to the correct type of cell, could be rejected by the human body. There is no guarantee that immunological compatibility would develop for a patient being treated with stem cells once they have been activated. The only way around this potential issue (with current knowledge) would be to create an embryonic clone of an individual and then use those stem cells. Besides another set of ethical questions to answer, the cell life of a cloned human embryo is unknown.
3. Embryos meet a technical definition of life.
Life is defined as a condition that distinguishes people, plants, or animals from matter that is inorganic. Embryos have the capacity for growth, would have functional activity if given enough time to grow, have reproduction capabilities, and have changes which occur preceding death.
4. Embryonic stem cell research is partially funded by taxpayers.
In the United States, more than $500 million has been spent on embryonic stem cell research since the practice began. Globally, taxpayers are funding research into embryonic stem cell lines at a similar rate. It is a practice that has been outlawed in the US since 1996, but the current stem cell lines under research were exempted from that legislation.
5. It takes several months for embryonic stem cells to be viable for research.
The stem cells that are gathered for research must be grown and sub-cultured for them to be capable of self-regeneration and long-term growth. This is a clinical process that takes several months to complete, using specific techniques, and can be quite costly. Even the collecting of the eggs is at an average cost of $2,000 per egg. With the uncertainty of the research, the investments being made could have zero payoff in the future.
These embryonic stem cell research pros and cons are just the beginning of the debate into this medical field. There are several potential future benefits which may help medical science to grow within this field. Ethical questions must also be answered and this can only happen at a personal level. Use this information as the start of forming your own opinion about this practice.