October 19, 2011 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

Long ago, in embryology class, we learned about remarkable cells that were totipotent. These embryonic cells had the amazing ability to develop into any other type of cell and also, given the right conditions, to develop into an entire organism. After a series of cell divisions, totipotent cells lost the ability to develop into an entire organism, but retained the ability to become any other type of cell. These embryonic cells were characterized as pluripotent cells.

In 1998 researchers announced they had isolated human embryonic cells and the arcane terms totipotent and pluripotent became firmly implanted in the public consciousness. The isolated cells were called human embryonic stem cells (ESCs). The new ability to isolate and culture ESCs launched a brand-new field of biomedicine — stem cell research. The new field has engendered great hope for the potential development of treatments for deadly genetic diseases and severe chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, and diabetes. The new field has also created bitter controversies that have raged between supporters and opponents of ESC research.

Pluripotent ESCs are obtained from the inner cell mass of a developing embryo. The inner cell mass is removed from the embryo and individual stem cells are isolated and encouraged to grow and replicate. Removing the inner cell mass, of course, kills the embryo. Many people view killing an embryo as the murder of a human being and they are vigorously opposed to ESC research on this basis. For such individuals, life begins at the moment of conception. On this view, a human being is created at the moment of conception — the union of a sperm and an egg. This nascent human is entitled to all the rights and protections accorded to humans that have already been born.

On this view, destroying an embryo is equivalent to any other murder and therefore illegal. The potential for great benefit to be derived from such research activities is of no consequence. For example, the Dignitas Personae states “the Magisterium of the Church has constantly proclaimed the sacred and inviolable character of every human life from its conception until its natural end”. [The Dignitas Personae, Vatican Instruction on Bioethics, was released in December 2008.]

But this is only one view. The question of when an embryo can be considered an actual human being has been examined for decades. A useful reference point may be the appearance of the primitive streak at 14 days of development. The primitive streak is a longitudinal groove in the midline of the embryo, providing a head-to-tail orientation around which developing structures will align and organize. Many bioethicists, scientists, and physicians have proposed that embryonic research may be conducted up until this 14th day of development.

On the surface, the ability to study ESCs and conduct research on developing tissue would seem to be an unmixed blessing for everyone. Instead, the issue of ESC research has created deep rifts and ongoing polarization, not only among people of different religious beliefs but also among elected representatives in Congress. The ethical, political, and religious discussions are continuing while people with severe illnesses wait for a cure.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

1 comments | Topics: Bioethics and Public Policy , Ethics and Morality , Reproductive Medicine , Stem Cell Research


S Hickman

S Hickman wrote on 11/28/11 10:36 AM

Surely at this early stage, it would be preferable to do this kind of research, rather than to use live animals. Which certainly do feel pain and fear

Add A Comment
(it will not be displayed)

BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.