The stem cell issue-2: The ethics

Yesterday, I discussed the science involved in stem cell research. Today I want to discuss the ethics.

The ethical problems associated with stem cell research occur because although the fertilized eggs were not created for the purposes of research but to help infertile couples, since the method of in vitro fertilization for the treatment of infertility has not been perfected, more fertilized eggs are created than can be used to actually generate pregnancies, and the question of what to do with these extra frozen stored embryos is problematic.

If the extra ones are not needed for future implantation in a womb, then the options are to destroy them, preserve them forever, or use them for research. Those favoring stem cell research argue that preserving them forever is not realistic, that they will have to be thrown away eventually, and that using them for research is better than destroying them without any benefit being obtained, even though the resulting blastocyst must be destroyed in order to produce the stem cell lines,

Those opposed to stem cell research (and abortion) have a simple and clear argument: Life begins at the instant when an egg is fertilized, and no human action is permissible thereafter to prevent that egg from being eventually born. So once an egg is fertilized, whether in the uterus or outside, then we have a human life and using a blastocyst for research is effectively destroying life. This is a secular argument, even though many, or even the majority, of those who support it may have religious reasons for their stand, such as the idea that god inserts the soul at the moment of conception when the egg is fertilized. They argue that if such a position requires the preservation of unused embryos indefinitely, then we should do so, however impractical that might be.

Those who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy and/or the use of embryonic stem cells for research have more difficulty in justifying their position because drawing a clear line as to when ‘life’ begins or a clump of cells becomes ‘human’ is hard. One thing they are agreed upon is that a human being is much more than a fertilized egg or a bunch of cells such as a blastocyst. But where does one draw the line?

One line is that until such time as the fetus can exist independently outside the womb, it is not a human being. Right now that time corresponds roughly to the third trimester of the pregnancy. But as technology improves, that is likely to shift to earlier times. Others argue that any organism (human or otherwise) must have some higher level of capacity, such as a brain, before its life becomes worthy of protection from harm. After all, when it comes to question of death, society seems to have decided that when the brain stops functioning one is effectively dead and one no longer needs to take steps to keep the body alive. And as the Terry Schiavo case tragically illustrated, what we mean by a functioning brain is more than just brain stem functions that maintain basic body processes and some reflexes. It means that the part of the brain, such as memory and cognition, that gives us our personality and makes us who we are must be functioning. Once a person has reached the stage of being in what is known as a ‘persistent vegetative state’, that person is considered to be effectively dead.

In this debate, both sides usually ignore the need for consistency across species. Why should only human life be so valued? What makes us superior and worthy of special consideration? If life is precious and life begins with a fertilized egg or with higher brain function, then what about the lives of other species? After all, we kill animals, even though they are fully functioning living things with a level of brain function that we would undoubtedly value if a human had it. We even think nothing of eating them after killing them. Why should we have one standard for humans and another for nonhuman animals?

One can take a speciesist position and simply assert as a given that human beings are superior to others and so we have a right to do what we like to other animal forms while treating human life as sacrosanct. But that is hard to justify on general moral or ethical grounds. There is no clear marker that justifies treating humans as special, unless you throw in ideas such as that humans have a soul and other animals do not. This is an argument based on a particular religious viewpoint and should have no place in determining public policy, which should always be based on secular arguments.

In my opinion, the position taken by ethicists such as Peter Singer is the most consistent moral and ethical one, that does not give humans special privileges. They take a utilitarian position, that what one should seek is the minimization of suffering. Since suffering involves sentience, this requires that an organism must have at least some primitive brain function and the development of a nervous system before it can be said to have the possibility of suffering. So it would be acceptable to destroy any system of cells (whether from a human or non-human animal) as long as it has not yet reached the stage where it has the ability to suffer, or it has passed that stage at the end of life.

Even if we do not achieve the high level of consistency that it requires of us, the utilitarian argument that says that what we should aim for is a net reduction of global suffering seems to me to be a workable ethical principle on which to base decisions like these. Hence it is ethically allowable to use embryonic stem cells from a blastocyst (before the cells themselves have reached the capacity to suffer) in order to do research to reduce the suffering of actual living organisms.

Of course, this raises other potential problems that are sure to come down the road. Is it ethical, for example, to deliberately produce blastocysts purely for the purpose of research, as opposed to using those that are the by-products of infertility treatments? If, for example, one wanted to study the early development of a disease that had a genetic basis, would it be ethical to take an egg and sperm from people who have that disease and create a fertilized egg purely in order to study the early onset of that disease or to develop treatments for it?

These are very tough questions but ones that are going to come at us thick and fast in the near future as science and technology inexorably advance.

POST SCRIPT: God will decide if and when and how the world will end

Two days ago, I suggested that religious people make unreliable allies in the battle to save the environment because of their belief in god’s plan. Right on cue, we have a member of the US Congress during hearings last week on cap-and-trade policies to reduce carbon emissions, quoting the Bible (Genesis 8:21,22 and Matthew 24:31) to support his belief that the future of the Earth is part of god’s plan. Yes, god has our back, based on what he supposedly told Noah after the flood. So don’t worry, burn those fossil fuels because Jesus has it covered!


  1. Tadas says

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I find the ethics of embryonic stem cell research as very interesting, and its discourse necessary. I have a feeling that you have read Richard Dawkins’ article titled Collateral Damage but if you or other readers of this blog have not, I highly recommend it. It offers a very interesting take.

    In a nutshell, he compares the collateral damage of war (in his example the Middle East) with the collateral damage of embryonic stem cell research. He argues that if you are in favor of war which inevitably has civilian “collateral” casualties, then to remain consistent you must be largely in favor of embryonic stem cell research (once again the collateral damage is that after conducting research the embryo ‘dies’). To justify the collateral damage morally, the magnitude of the benefits of that action must exceed the magnitude of the costs. Both war and research have their costs and benefits, but the positive difference between benefit and cost associated with research seem to be orders of magnitude higher than war.

  2. Mekhong Kurt says


    This is the first time I’ve stumbled across your blog, and am I ever impressed. You take as balanced a view as possible, giving each side its due and ascribing to it its demons — both of which are extremely commendable.

    I was unaware of the congressman’s words until I watched the video, and I recoiled in horror that some of my tax money goes to pay him.

    Let me make clear: I was raised a Christian, in the Episcopal Church — a very high parish at that, one practically indistinguishable from a Catholic parish, except for the language of the Mass and the question of the infallibility of the Pope. In fact, I seriously considered going into the priesthood as a young man. Many of my relatives are deeply religious, ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Church of the Nazarene subscribers to run-of-the-mill Baptists, Methodists, etc. The small town where I grew up, with only about 500-600 people all my life growing up, had, at times, as many as about 16-17 churches. Yes, I grew up in a religious environment, and still wonder about “original cause,” in the sense that term is used in classical logic and debate.

    But on the practical level, the scientific method wins. Completely. By definition, we can neither prove nor disprove anything regarding any god, so are left with, well, what we are left with. (Dawkins doesn’t give enough time to the fact we can’t disprove or prove matters of faith, at least in his stuff I’ve read, though I do admire him.)

    Thanks for an eminently readable blog. And thanks even more for principled intellectual honesty.

  3. says


    Thanks for the link to the Dawkins article which I had not read before.

    I personally hate the phrase “collateral damage”. It seems to me to be an euphemism to hide the true brutality of what is done to innocent people in war. So using the phrase as part of an argument for justifying stem cell research doesn’t work that well for me, although I realize that Dawkins’ article had a larger purpose.

  4. says


    Welcome to the blog and thanks for the kind words.

    You and I are quite similar in that I too grew up very religious in a religious family and was an ordained lay minister in the Methodist Church. I have described my transition here.

  5. says

    Kurt: Aside I know… but I think “Dawkins doesn’t give enough time to the fact we can’t disprove or prove matters of faith” because, well, that about summarizes it. Religious authorities certainly never assert that “gee whiz, we can’t actually back up our claims”; that would undermine their business.

    So We can’t apply scientific reasoning to questions like “Which account of Jesus’ last words on the cross is correct? (out of 3 or so popular phrases)” without new evidence turning up. But church leaders want you to accept their word “on faith”, despite that we’ll likely never be able to scrutinize it. Maybe *they* should spend a little more time emphasizing that *their* views can be neither proven nor disproven, you know?

  6. dave says

    I wonder if in this series you will be touching on this issue of patenting life in that when you ‘discover’ how some aspect of stem cells work you ‘invent’ them.

  7. says

    I am a Christian and don’t believe in abortion. Yet I support stem cell research and believe you can do so from both a Biblical, ethical and moral standard.

    David states that God knew him in the womb. These eggs don’t enter the womb.

    When life begins is a tough question for atheists and christians.

    Interesting article.

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