The Use of Embryonic Stem Cells


The current discussion around the use of, and research on, embryonic human stem cells (heSCs), cannot be understood if it is not placed in context with the issues of abortion and IVF. Both abortion and IVF have in common that they make available a considerable quantity of foetal tissue (the aborted foetuses) or even complete human embryos (the “surplus embryos” that are created in the context of an IVF procedure, but not transferred into a female uterus). These foetuses and embryos are the much sought-after raw material for bio medical research.

In a certain sense, the aspirations and ambitions of biomedical researchers (and of the industry that finances them), and the promises they make with regard to the potential outcome of their research activities, are today one of the main driving forces for the pro-abortion and pro-IVF movement: the pharma industry wants foetal tissue and heSCs to be available, and it therefore does not want that the fact that these are in fact human bodies be discussed and understood by wider circles in society. It is for this reason that it provides strong support, financial and otherwise, to the pro-abortion movement. Without aborted foetuses and “surplus embryos” this branch of scientific research could simply not exist. And if ever any therapeutic application were to be developed on the basis of this research, such therapies would inevitably require the use of such foetal tissue or of heSCs obtained from an embryo that is destroyed in the process.

Current State of Play and Expected Development

The expectations that have been raised with regard to the potential therapeutic uses of heSCs are indeed very high. HeSCs are cells that can be obtained from human embryos at the very first stages of their development and that have the potential to develop into any kind of body cells. It is hoped that they could be used to replace any cells in a human body that, for whatever therapeutic purpose, need replacement. In this way, researchers hope to develop therapies in which heSCs could be used to regenerate, or even completely replace, human organs that are befallen by a disease, or to cure degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, etc.

One problem here (like in transplantation medicine) is, however, that the human immune system rejects cells and tissue that are transferred from another human organism. This is why researchers thought that “therapeutic cloning” might be a possible solution, as this would allow transferring stem cells obtained from an embryo that was genetically identical to the recipient. One could thus create clones for each adult person in order to use them as source for the supply of “spare parts”.

While the ethical controversy around stem cell research and cloning did not prevent research on heSCs (often with political support and funding from governments or the EU) from taking place, it now appears that the euphoria was premature: the results that were obtained have fallen far behind the expectations. It appears that heSCs, when they are transferred into another human organism, cannot be easily controlled and have a tendency of behaving like cancer cells. Nearly all test animals that have been subject to tests with embryonic stem cells developed cancers. It is under these circumstances very unlikely that any therapeutic use of heSCs can be developed in the near or medium term future.

Furthermore, heSC research is affected by a serious credibility crisis, following a series of cases of scientific fraud.

The Ethical Issue

The ethical objection against the research on, or therapeutic use of, heSCs is easily summarized: those stem cells are obtained by destroying the embryo, who is a human person. And even if the embryo were not destroyed, it would still remain that he would be “made” and “used”, without his consent, for no other purpose than to act as a supplier of stem cells. A human being is turned into raw material, a person into a thing: an exemplary case of a violation of human dignity.

As things currently stand, the attempt to develop such “therapeutic” uses has currently suffered some severe set-backs. But if such “therapies” ever were to be developed in the future, then it would be therapies whose application each time requires the destruction of a human being. The ethical dilemma is therefore not that a few “surplus embryos” must be sacrificed to achieve important scientific progress (which would be unacceptable anyway, given that those embryos are in fact human beings), but that we are searching for therapies that, if generally used, would require a constant supply of such “surplus embryos”. In this way, medical progress would have the truly perverse effect of dividing humanity into two groups: one has to supply the material (or should we say: it is the material?) that is needed to cater for the needs of the other one. Once again, we could speak of a class of slaves and a class of masters, or even of “therapeutic cannibalism”.

There is absolutely no purpose that could ever justify the development of such therapies. The problem with the therapeutic use of heSCs is not that it currently does not yet work (an obstacle that, at some point in future, might be overcome), but that it is intrinsically and profoundly immoral.

We should therefore be grateful that the lack of success of the research directed at therapeutic uses of heSCs has, at least until today, spared us the dilemma of seeing such “therapies” being applied in practice. But it is for reasons of principle rather than in view of its lack of success that such research activities should be stopped and, if possible, internationally outlawed.

The Alternative: Adult Stem Cells

While research on heSCs has so far not yielded any therapeutic use, research on adult stem cells has been far more successful.

Adult stem cells are obtained not from an embryo that is killed in the process, but from the adult person itself, notably from the spinal marrow. Contrary to heSCs, adult stem cells are not “totipotential” (i.e., they cannot develop into all kinds of somatic cells), but they are still capable of developing into a wide variety of cells and do not carry the same “carcinogenic” risks. They are unproblematic from an ethical point of view, and at the same time have already successfully been used for a wide variety of therapeutic purposes.