SBC Life Articles

Stem Cell Research and “Respecting” the Embryo

Talk about stem cell research seems to be popping up everywhere these days. Stem cell research figured prominently in the last presidential election and is in the news almost daily. In June 2005, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution regarding stem cell research. The House of Representatives has passed a bill on stem cell research, and the Senate is now considering it. Why all the press? Is this something we really need to be concerned about? Shouldn't we just leave it up to the scientists? No, and here is why.

Stem cell research offers hope for the treatment of conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries. As Christians, we must insist that the treatment of diseased or injured body parts is a desirable objective. Whether the treatment involves insulin-producing cells for people with diabetes or new nerve cells for persons with spinal cord injuries, the need for help and hope is real. But before wholeheartedly embracing all forms of stem cell research, we must note an important distinction between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.

Stem cells are those cells existing in humans that can form other types of body cells. Adult stem cells, found in the human from birth onward, are present in the placenta and umbilical cord as well. Adult stem cells can be coaxed into becoming almost any cell in the body and have been used successfully to treat a number of diseases and conditions. Embryonic stem cells are those that are found only in the embryonic human and can, at least theoretically, give rise to all the types of cells in the human body. To use embryonic stem cells, however, requires the destruction of the embryo.

Here is the ethical dilemma: Is the embryonic human "one of us" and, therefore, deserving of protection, or is it just a clump of cells that we can utilize for gain in the form of potential cures?

Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, M.D., noted in a July 29, 2005, speech, "Our development is a continuous process — gradual and chronological. We were all once embryos. The embryo is human life at its earliest stage of development. And, accordingly, the human embryo has moral significance and moral worth. It deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect."1

What did Senator Frist intend with this description of the embryo? What does it mean to treat an embryo with respect? A further look at Frist's position is warranted. First, however, it will be instructive to consider what "respect" for the embryo has wrought in another nation: the United Kingdom.

Embryonic Research in the UK

The announcement of the birth of the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Joy Brown, caused quite a stir in 1978. One of the results was that in 1982, a committee was convened to study the "social, ethical, and legal implications" of new and anticipated developments in the area of assisted human reproduction and to make recommendations to Parliament.2

The Warnock Committee, as that body came to be called, recognized that the embryo did not by law enjoy full rights as a person. Its conclusion was that, although some would wish to accord full human rights to the embryo, the "more generally held position … is that though the human embryo is entitled to some added measure of respect beyond that accorded to other animal subjects, that respect cannot be absolute, and may be weighed against the benefits arising from research."3

Ultimately, the Warnock Committee recommended that the embryo could indeed be a subject of research and that that research, as well as the handling of the embryos, be licensed activities. To that end, it recommended the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), chaired by a layperson, to issue such licenses. Additionally, the committee recommended that research on embryos be conducted only up to fourteen days post-fertilization, in order that the embryo might not feel pain.4

The committee further concluded that not only could "spare" embryos, with the consent of the parents, be used for research, but also any embryo resulting from in vitro fertilization could be used for research.5 With respect to cloning or gene therapy to prevent genetic defects, the committee recommended that HFEA provide guidance regarding the ethical acceptability of such research in the future.6 Although there was significant disagreement within the Warnock Committee, a slim majority voted for these recommendations, and Parliament enacted them.

In the words of Mary Warnock: "We … argued that, in practical terms, a collection of four or sixteen cells was so different from a full human being, from a new human baby or a fully formed human fetus, that it might quite legitimately be treated differently. Specifically we argued that, unlike a full human being, it might legitimately be used as a means to an end that was good for other humans, both now and in the future."7

What has been the result of Parliament enacting the Warnock Committee's recommendations? HFEA was formed in August 1991. Almost 2 million embryos have been created through in vitro fertilization since that time. Of these, "eight hundred thousand have been 'allowed to perish,'" 118,000 are frozen and awaiting the decision of the parents, and seventy-nine thousand have been "donated to science."8

After Dolly the cloned sheep was announced in 1997, another committee — the Human Genetics Advisory Commission and Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Working Cloning Group — was convened. Because stem cell research showed great promise, the committee recommended that HFEA encourage further embryonic stem cell research by continuing to oversee all in vitro fertilization and assuming new responsibility for cell nuclear replacement (CNR or cloned) embryos. For embryos to be created for research, the sperm and egg donors simply had to give specific consent, the committee recommended. Further, the committee stated that cloning should proceed, in order to study certain mitochondrial diseases.9

In 2001, the Human Reproductive Cloning Act became law, making it a crime to implant a cloned embryo in a woman's uterus, thereby opening wide the door for so-called "therapeutic" cloning (whereby an embryo is cloned and then destroyed when the stem cells are "harvested"). Subsequently, 2004 saw the opening of Britain's first embryo stem cell bank and the granting of a license to the Center for Life at Newcastle University for the production of cloned embryos in order to obtain stem cells. John Harris of the University of Manchester saw these developments as a mark of British society's "compassion and concern for those threatened by disease."10 That "compassion and concern" was furthered on February 8, 2005, when Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, was issued a license to clone human embryos to study motor neuron disease (also called Lou Gehrig's disease).11

Since the Warnock Committee was assembled in 1982, the UK has traversed significant ground. After HFEA was put in place, only fourteen years were required to proceed from the regulation of in vitro fertilization to the granting of human cloning licenses for embryonic stem cell research. The so-called "respect" for a human embryo, far from being absolute, has given way to respect for informed consent and destruction of embryos — some created specifically for destruction — in the name of compassion and concern. Although this is only one country's experience, we would be wise to take note and consider the trajectory of our own path.

Embryonic Research in the US

The United States does not have either an equivalent of the Warnock Report or a regulatory agency such as HFEA. Legislative bodies in various states, as well as our national Congress, are pursuing, with varying degrees of interest and speed, public policy regarding cloning and stem cell research. The House of Representatives passed in May 2005 the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, and the Senate is likely to consider it soon. The bill would allow federal funding for embryonic stem cells that are procured from human embryos that have been created for the purpose of treating infertility but are no longer "needed" by the couple for whom they were created. The embryos must be specifically donated for research by the couple from whom they originated, utilizing "written, informed consent."12

In 2001, limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research became available. Private funding for such research has not been restricted by law in the past, nor is it currently. Since 2001, there has been increased pressure by various groups, including many scientists, to increase federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Some scientists argue that failing to fund embryonic stem cell research with tax dollars will result in loss of international stature in the sciences, loss of business opportunity, and scientists departing to other fields of study or to other countries.

Meanwhile, advances in adult stem cell research and treatment continue to be made. Frist acknowledged this in his July 29 speech: "Now, to date, adult stem cell research is the only type of stem cell research that has resulted in proven treatments for human patients."13 He called for increased funding of adult stem cell research, arguing, "Stem cells taken from cord blood have shown great promise in treating leukemia, myeloproliferative disorders, and congenital immune system disorders. Recently, cord blood cells have shown some ability to become neural cells, which could lead to treatments for Parkinson's Disease and heart disease."14

Frist recognized the ethical issues involved and called for Americans to talk with one another and to engage in debating the ethical ramifications of such vital issues.

Another advance in stem cell research was heralded in the Washington Post on August 22, 2005. Rick Weiss, in "Skin Cells Converted to Stem Cells," cited a Harvard study, announcing the production of cells that are like embryonic stem cells from the fusion of ordinary skin cells with cultured embryonic stem cells (from an existing approved stem cell line). These new cells possess the DNA of the donor skin cells, and this is good news. These hybrid cells also contain DNA from the original embryonic stem cell used, and this is a problem. If, however, the technique can be perfected, a new source of embryonic stem cells — without the further destruction of embryos — may be available in the future.

Evaluating the Research

How do we evaluate such news? We need to keep some basic principles in mind. First, life is a sacred gift. The 2005 SBC Resolution on stem cell research rightly references Genesis 1: 26-27 to describe human life as valuable, because it is made in the image of God. Second, we are responsible for the ways in which we treat one another, including the vulnerable ones among us. When humankind was given dominion over the earth, it was as responsible stewards, not as users of one another for our own ends.

Oliver O'Donovan, when considering in vitro fertilization, rightly wrote: "When we start making human beings we necessarily stop loving them; that which is made rather than begotten becomes something that we have at our disposal, not someone with whom we can engage in brotherly fellowship."15

A brother cannot be a brother and an object at the same time. The SBC Resolution on stem cell research, in which adult stem cell research is lauded and embryonic stem cell research decried, recognizes this: "It is never morally acceptable to prey on some humans to benefit others."16

Respect for an embryo cannot entail its destruction for the "good" of others. If we are willing to destroy embryos for a higher "good," what is to stop us from destroying other classes of human beings for a "good" cause? Who will be next? Will it be fetuses or live-born children with conditions "incompatible with life"?

As can be seen from the example the UK provides, the weakest humans among us are left unprotected when we give greater weight to research potential than we give to the preservation of young lives. We must remember that protecting vulnerable lives includes protecting those with medical conditions that might be treated based on the findings of stem cell research. Such people must be treated with dignity and respect and afforded every opportunity to seek treatments based on ethical research. But at the root of all discussions on embryonic stem cell research is the question: Are we willing to destroy a human life in order to achieve research benefits? The answer to this question must be a resounding, "No!"



1 William H. Frist, "Frist Comments on Stem Cell Research" Floor Statement — Remarks as Prepared for Delivery.
2 Mary Warnock, A Question of Life (United Kingdom: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1984; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd, 1985), p. 4.
3 Ibid., p. 62.
4 Ibid., pp. 64-66.
5 Ibid., pp. 66-69.
6 Ibid., pp. 72-74.
7 Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.
8 Kirsty Milne, "Logic lacking as politics and morality brace for attack of the clones," The Scotsman.com, May 22, 2005.
9 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
10 Michael Lawton, "Britain Approves Human Cloning," Deutsche Welle, August 12, 2004.
11 Ian Wilmut, "The Case for Cloning Humans," The Scientist, vol. 19, no. 8, April, 25 2005.
12 "Frist Comments on Stem Cell Research."
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Oliver O'Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 65.
16 "SBC 2005 Resolutions," SBC LIFE, August 2005, p. 7.

    About the Author

  • D. Joy Riley, M.D.