One of the most contentious moral issue currently debated in the public square is the issue of embryonic stem cell research. However, there is so much confusion surrounding the issue that many people don’t know what to think. In this essay I would like to examine the morality of embryonic stem cell research in the clearest, most concise way possible in order to brush aside all of the confusion.
What is Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
At about 4 to 5 days after conception, an embryo (known at this stage as a blastocyst) has about 50 to 150 cells. These cells are able to differentiate into different cell types and are remarkably plastic- able to become one of more than 200 cell types found in the adult body.
These differ from adult stem cells which are taken from developed human beings. Although these cells do have some ability to differentiate, they are not as versatile as embryonic stem cells.
It is important to note that one should distinguish between embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research. Adult stem cell research does not create any real moral dilemmas because adult stem cells can be used without harm. However, when embryonic stem cells are harvested from the blastocyst, it kills the young embryo.
Many scientists claim that embryonic stem cell research could prove very fruitful for treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and other diseases. This has created an ethical dilemma- is it right to kill this blastocyst in order to facilitate this research?
Christianity and Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Christians are particularly notorious in the public square for their opposition to embryonic stem cell research. For example, Sam Harris blasts Christians for their religiously motivated opposition to stem cell research in his book Letter to a Christian Nation-
“Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not- that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral- that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings…[This] explains why [Christians] are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research.” 1
Embryonic stem cell research is more than an important public policy issue- it is also important because Christians in general are being degraded for their anti-research stance (even though, obviously, not all Christians are against the research and not all non-Christians are for it). Christians should therefore know where they stand on the issue and be able to defend their position against attacks. However, for this essay I would like to consider the moral question apart from any religious commitment.
The Issue: Is the Embryo a Human Being or Not?
It seems to me that embryonic stem cell research comes down to one issue- is the embryo that is destroyed in the process a human being or not? Once we grant that the embryo is a human being, it is clearly immoral to kill it in order to help others. The only way to deny this conclusion is to deny that humans have any intrinsic value, a possibility which I will consider near the end of this article.
For now, we’ll proceed with the relatively uncontroversial assumption that it is morally wrong, all things being equal, to kill an innocent human being. Thus, if the embryo killed for the stem cells is a human being, embryonic stem cell research is morally wrong.
This simple truth helps clear away all of the bluster and confusion found on both sides of the debate. 2 People like Sam Harris, who polemically accuse Christians of being ‘more concerned’ with embryos than with developed human beings, simply confuse the issue. 3 If embryos are actually human beings, as a Christian may rightly maintain, then we are morally obligated to avoid killing them, all things being equal. This does not mean that the Christian is unsympathetic for the disease-ridden individual who could be helped by embryonic stem cell research, it means that the Christian is not willing to condone the sacrifice of one unwilling person to heal another.
So, what is an embryo, and should it be considered a human being? As I argued in my essay on abortion, identifying life at contraception is the best, least arbitrary place to identify the beginning of human life. This is perfectly captured by Greg Koukl, who writes,
By any objective, scientific standard, the embryo qualifies as a member of the human race. From the moment of conception the embryo is an individual. The zygote is distinct from mother, father, and other living things, having her own unique genetic fingerprint.
The embryo is living, characterized by metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. The embryo is human, carrying DNA with a human genetic signature. Finally, the embryo is an individual being: a self-contained, self-integrated living entity with her own nature. She has the innate capacity to proceed through the full series of human developmental stages. All that’s needed is proper nurture and environment, the same as you and I. The embryo, therefore, from the very moment of conception is an individual, living, human being, a bona fide member of the human family. Her cells are not yet individuated (they haven’t developed unique vocations as bone cells, skin cells, etc.). Yet she is still an individual self (though not yet self-aware), and will remain herself for her entire life until death. She will never become a human; she already is one. 4
This seems to be a clear and accurate description of an embryo, and it is an excellent case for the status of the embryo as a human person. Many Christians (myself included) additionally believe that human embryos already possess immaterial souls, but this belief is not essential to make the case against embryonic stem cell research. That is why Harris misses the mark when he claims that “The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible…Your [Christian] beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.” 5 As we have seen here, the Christian concept of a soul which Harris so vigorously abhors does not make or break the case for embryonic stem cell research.
Unsurprisingly, Harris and other advocates of embryonic stem cell research use emotional bluster and bad logic to support their case, just like pro-choice advocates. For example, a common argument in favor of research is that embryos cannot feel any pain when they are destroyed. But does this provide any relevant moral conclusion? Consider the implications of the argument:
1. If a human being does not feel pain when he or she is destroyed, it is not immoral to destroy him or her.
2. A human embryo does not feel pain when he or she is destroyed.
3. Therefore, it is not immoral to destroy a human embryo.
The first premise of this argument is so laughably absurd that even the most inexperienced moral thinkers will rightly dismiss it. But almost all arguments in favor of embryonic stem cell research are similarly bad. To give one more example, Harris points out that the blastocyst that is destroyed while harvesting the stem cells only has 150 cells and is smaller than a fly. Is there a relevant moral difference here? Let’s see:
1. If a human being has more cells, then that human being is more valuable.
2. An embryo has a very small number of cells.
3. Therefore, embryos are not very valuable.
Again, another laughably bad moral principle, as can be seen when we plug Harris himself into the equation!
1. If a human being possesses more cells, then that human being is more valuable.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger has more cells than Sam Harris.
3. Therefore, Arnold Schwarzenegger is more valuable than Sam Harris.
By failing to focus on the primary issue (whether or not the embryo is a human being), supporters of embryonic stem cell research will continue to make embarrassing moral thinking errors.
Are Humans Valuable?
Having made the case that embryos are human beings like you or me (just in a different stage of development), we need only demonstrate that human beings have value and should therefore not be killed, all things being equal, to make the case against research. When it comes to the question of human value there are three possibilities:
1. Human beings have no value.
2. Human beings have extrinsic (contingent) value.
3. Human beings have intrinsic value.
Almost everyone would reject the first possibility, especially because it would imply that there is nothing wrong with somebody murdering you. But is human value based on extrinsic factors (such as size, capacities, intelligence, social status, etc.) that can change? This is an extremely dangerous view to hold, because it entails that human value is conditional (it depends on a human being having certain characteristics). And who determines what these characteristics are, and what importance they are given? Additionally, most proposed characteristics erode into absurdity when analyzed in detail (as we saw earlier concerning the ability to feel pain and the size of the blastocyst).
Contrarily, western civilization has traditionally affirmed the third possibility, and, in fact, this is affirmed in the Declaration of the United States of America, which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The idea that humans have intrinsic value is also the foundational principle behind human rights movements, including the abolition of slavery. Thus, western society and the United States have always (at least in principle) affirmed intrinsic human rights, so as a matter of public policy embryonic stem cell research should be illegal if the arguments that an embryo is a human being are sound.
There is a tremendous amount of confusion and obfuscation about this issue, but the ethics of the situation are quite simple and, in my view, quite clear. Science and logic both show that human life begins at conception. If we want to affirm intrinsic human rights, then we have no choice but to reject embryonic stem cell research.
2. There are a great deal of factors being thrown around in the debate. For example, some challenge the claim that embryonic stem cell research is really so promising, and point out that no real results have been proven yet (see, for instance, here), while others claim that with more time and research funds, the research will prove monumentally useful. There are also many misconceptions; for example, many people seem to think that embryonic stem cell research is illegal in the United States, when in actual fact it is perfectly legal. Most of the political debate concerns whether or not taxpayer dollars should be spent to fund the research. In fact, many opponents of embryonic stem cell research point to the lack of private funding as evidence that there isn’t really so much promise in the research anyways. But no matter. These issues are all secondary compared to the issue of whether or not the embryo is a human being.
3. As mentioned previously, not all Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research and not all non-Christians support it, so it is unfair to paint this as a “Christian vs. non-Christian” issue. Just as is the case with abortion, religion is often thrown into the mix even when it does not need to be.
4. Koukl, Greg. The Confusing Moral Logic of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Available at http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6691
5. Harris. Letter, p. 31.