The employment of human embryonic stem cells is one of the most significant innovations in medicine (Wobus and Boheler, 2005). The discovery of embryonic stem cells has created the fields of regenerative medicine and cellular therapy, which aim to treat debilitating and/or fatal conditions that were earlier acknowledged to be incurable (Taupin, 1996). Unfortunately, this breakthrough has brought forth issues regarding the value of life. Technically, embryonic stem cells are collected from embryos that are ethically regarded at the earliest stages of human life. Ethical arguments have arisen, questioning whether it is right to improve life by destroying another human life in the form of an embryo. This paper will enumerate ethical arguments that support and renounce the use of spare embryos for the stem cell technology, as well as provide explanations for each side of the issue.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from the inner cell mass (ICM) of 5 to 7-day old human embryos or blastocysts right before its implantation along the walls of the uterus (Bongso et al., 1994). These stem cells are cultured in vitro over mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder cells supplied with growth serum. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to infinitely self-renew and sustain their capacity to differentiate into any form of mature cell. Depending on the kind of trigger stimuli introduced, these cultured cells may be controlled to differentiate into the cell type needed for research, experimentation and therapeutics.Stem cells are collected from four different (4) sources— from surplus embryos or by-products of in vitro fertilization (IVF) laboratories, from “spare” embryos obtained from embryo donors at IVF clinics, from embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) or the removal of the nucleus from a body cell and reinsertion into an egg cell, and lastly, from aborted or terminated fetuses. No matter which route is used to collect stem cells, the use of embryos for stem cell research has been the center of ethical debate since its conception. The principle of ethics involves careful deliberation on the use of stem cells as related to human well-being and human freedom.
Several issues regarding this new technology has raised uproar and disagreements between the scientific community and ethics groups.One major ethical issue regarding the use of “spare” embryos is the lack of respect for the embryo. The concern is associated to the possible future demand for embryos once this cellular technology is determined to be successfully therapeutic. Embryos might later be treated as therapeutic materials or commodities instead of living beings at their initial stages.
There is also a risk for a devaluation of embryos, wherein the loss of human life may later in time be tolerated instead of prevented (Bobrow, 2005). In addition, the acceptance of destruction of embryos may serve as a precedent for implementation of other controversial biomedical acts such as creation of embryo “factories”, cloned babies and mass production of “spare parts” from fetuses (Hug, 2005, 2006). One the other hand, the employment of spare embryos may not automatically mean any disrespect towards embryos because the destruction of embryos in order to collect stem cells results in the provision of new therapeutics for specific medical disorders. Certain scientists have actually claimed that it is more immoral to destroy embryos during in vitro fertilization because those embryos are not implanted or donated for further use but are actually discarded, unlike embryos that are destroyed for stem cell research which are cautiously propagated and ultimately designed to replace defective tissues and cells for medical therapeutics.Another major issue that is being publicly scrutinized is whether the creation of embryos for research purposes is morally worse than using “spare” embryos from IVF cases for experiments.
Such issue reflects the intention of each act, and the idea of using leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization protocols is much more tolerable to society than the simple creation of research-oriented embryos because there is less guilt involved in using extra or spare embryos from IVF cases than creating embryos that could have been another human being but their chance to live has been taken away. On the other hand, it must also be realized that production and destruction of spare embryos is a normal physiological event during pregnancy, which enables a sibling embryo to complete the entire gestational range (Borge and Evers, 2003). This kind of sacrifice is also necessary to promote life for the sibling embryo.
After describing the pros and cons of two major ethical issues, I personally believe that the utilization of spare embryos for stem cell research is acceptable. I think that the ethical questions raised against the use of spare embryos just shows that the public lacks a comprehensive understanding of this revolutionary technology, as well as an incomplete knowledge of the normal physiology of the human reproductive system. More effort should be given by both scientific and legislative communities to understand and disseminate these essential information so that the society will have a better grasp of the benefits of embryonic stem cell research and appreciate its ultimate results in medical therapeutics.