Embryonic stem cell research

The extraction of stem cells from living embryos causes the destruction of those embryos. Life believes that this destruction is ethically objectionable, since we ought not to end individual human lives in the name of research. The human embryo is quite unique.

No-one objects to the use of stem cells in medicine per se. The ethical problem arises only when the stem cells are extracted from embryos, rather than other sources. Embryos are emphatically not the only source of stem cells, nor are embryonic stem cells currently providing the really exciting breakthroughs in regenerative medicine. Indeed, embryo research is failing to live up to its hype, and other ethically acceptable areas of stem cell research are proving more fruitful.

Even those who have no absolute principled objection to embryo research recognise that it takes place in something of a moral grey area. Professor James Thomson is a pioneer in the field and was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998. Yet in a 2007 interview, he commented that “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough” . Professor Shinya Yamanaka, another of the world’s leading researchers in this field, abandoned hESC research for ethical reasons: “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters…I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

And there are other ways; ethically sound alternatives to extracting stem cells from embryos.

Prof. Yamanaka is referring to induced pluripotency, usually shortened to iPS. Along with the already mentioned Professor Thomson, Yamanaka was a pioneer of this technique, which takes adult cells and reprogrammes them to an “embryo-like” state, thus enabling the extraction of powerful stem cells without the ethical difficulties of destroying embryos (it also avoids many of the numerous practical problems with embryo research). Since its discovery in 2007, this technique has swiftly become the most exciting area of regenerative medicine; although it is still in its infancy and is not without its own technical and ethical challenges, it has attracted an increasingly large proportion of funding and growing numbers of researchers. The journal Science declared iPS the “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year 2008”, an accolade that it had also given to Thomson’s original work on hESCs a decade earlier. Professor Thomson himself believes that the progress in iPS means that the whole debate over embryo research may soon be redundant, commenting that “a decade from now, this [i.e. embryo research] will be just a funny historical footnote.” Many other observers support the view that the considerable and still unresolved technical problems of embryo research mean that it is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the future of regenerative medicine . Sir Martin Evans, for instance, a Noble Laureate and another pioneer of ESC research (in mice), has suggested that iPS represents “the writing…on the wall” for research using embryos. Ian Wilmut, a pioneer in mammalian cloning and the man who created Dolly the sheep, left hESC research because he believes that iPS is more clinically promising.

The biological start of life of a human being can be established empirically. From the formation of an embryo, we have a being that is human, in the sense that it is an individual entity with a unique human genetic code that will, in the ordinary course of events, develop into a fully grown human being. In this respect it is very different from individual gametes – that is, sperm and eggs – which carry the genetic material of the human individual who produced them, and which will never grow into anything else unless combined with other gametes.

Our view, at Life, is that there is no other point at which life can be said to have begun without introducing an element of arbitrariness. Many ethicists choose some quality which they believe to be integral to “real” human existence, such as consciousness or the ability to feel pain. But who gets to make that decision, and what level of consciousness or pain-feeling is enough? Are sleeping people less than human because they lack consciousness? What about those with severe dementia, or those in comas, or toddlers, or developmentally disabled people?

For more on this question, see the personhood briefing sheet.

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