Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that were created through the in vitro fertilization process. These eggs are then donated for research purposes with the informed consent of their donors. Researchers do not derive embryonic stem cells from eggs that are fertilized in a woman’s body.
Women do not have abortions to harvest their embryonic stem cells, nor do any providers sell fetal tissue for these cell lines to develop.
Human embryonic stem cells come from a transference of cells from a preimplantation-stage embryo in a laboratory culture dish. It is mixed with culture medium, allowing the cells to divide, and then spread over the surface of this dish. These cells can then develop into all three derivatives of the primary germ layers, making it possible for them to eventually turn into one of the over 200 different cell types that are found in the human body.
It is not possible to save the embryo when these cells are harvested from it, which ends the potential future viability of human life. That is where a majority of the embryonic stem cell research pros and cons focus on when discussing this subject. How you personally define human life will usually dictate which side of the debate you support.
List of the Pros of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
1. The embryonic stem cells are harvested 5-7 days after conception.
Adult stem cells do not provide the same benefits as embryonic ones from a therapeutic standpoint. They fall short in their viability to treat genetic diseases. That’s because the same disease found in the adult body can be present in their stem cells. When the harvesting takes place, it occurs during the first week after conception. At this stage, the embryo has not yet developed to a stage where a personal identity can be assigned to it, nor can it live outside of a specialized environment. It is essentially a mass of cells.
2. Researchers use the embryonic stem cells from discarded embryos.
The IVF process which creates embryos for transplantation in the first place are often discarded without a second though. Reporting by The Telegraph in 2012 found that over 1.7 million human embryos were discarded during or after the conception process. Between 1991-2012, there were 3.5 million human embryos created, but only roughly 235,000 successful implantation procedures. About 840, 000 were put into cold storage, while just 2,000 were stored for donation.
Approximately 6,000 embryos during this two-decade period were set aside for medical research. Compared to the 1.4 million that were implanted as a way to start a pregnancy, where 1 in 6 failed, the issue of morality is more complex than the black-and-white world that some people create.
3. Embryonic stem cells can be harvested ethically from almost any perspective.
New technologies make it possible for doctors to harvest remaining embryonic stem cells from the umbilical cord after a child is born. Even if parents decide to store cord blood instead of make a donation, the product can still contain a line of embryonic stem cells that could be useful for research purposes. Since the umbilical cord doesn’t stay attached to the child, nor does the cord blood get reabsorbed into the mother or the baby, the only way to unethically take this resource is to do it without asking.
4. Pain is not felt during the embryonic stem cell procedure.
When researchers destroy an embryo as they harvest the line of stem cells that develops, there is no pain experienced by this cell group. Researchers believe that a fetus doesn’t have the concept of pain developed until around the 20th week of gestation. Most of the embryos that are used for this process have been frozen anyway, kept in storage because there is no intention to use the cells to hopefully create a pregnancy one day anyway.
Fetal tissues wouldn’t supply the embryonic stem cells anyway because at that stage of development, they have already turned into what they are going to be. That makes it virtually impossible to study their qualities at the level where they would be medically beneficial.
5. No embryonic stem cells are taken without consent.
IVF doctors don’t take fertilized eggs away from women or couples with an evil laugh, thinking about all the dastardly ways they can manipulate embryonic stem cells for personal gain. People don’t steal frozen embryos, encourage abortions, or harvest the tissues from a growing fetus to serve a medical or political agenda. Every embryonic stem cell line comes from the consent of its donor. No research on those cells will take place unless there is explicit consent offered by those involved.
6. We do not know the full potential of this new field of medical science.
We are still in the early stages of research to determine the full potential value of embryonic stem cells as a treatment option for some individuals. As the University of Michigan notes, it may lead to more effective treatments for serious human ailments. The future discoveries in this field could alleviate the suffering for millions of people around the world. Spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and juvenile diabetes are just a few of the conditions which could be improved if medical studies are given time and funding to reach a conclusion.
7. Treatments using embryonic stem cells have already produced results.
Early embryonic stem cell treatments through the use of cord blood therapies have already produce positive outcomes for roughly 10,000 people. These treatments offer new ways to find a cure for 70+ different diseases with this option. Kids that have an immunodeficiency disorder and receive this form of treatment see a treatment success rate of 90% today – and that figure continues to grow.
List of the Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
1. It destroys the future potential of human life.
Whether you feel that life begins at conception, at some stage in the womb, or after birth, everyone can agree on the idea that an embryo represent the future potential of life. We can get lost in the semantics of how life begins to support how we feel, but the bottom line here is that the termination of an embryo stops the future potential for that group of cells. Using it for research purposes, even with the consent of the mother or couple involved, means you’re trading future human potentiality for current potentiality. Is that really a justifiable action?
2. The number of successful treatment outcomes is relatively minor.
There are significant barriers in place when looking at the potential of an embryonic stem cell treatment. There are unstable gene expressions which occur when this method is used, along with the formation of tumors, and some people even see a failure in the cell’s ability to activate to a specific purpose. Until these challenges are addressed in clinical settings, the full potential of this treatment can never be realized. Does it make sense to continue harvesting cells from embryos if the failure rate remains high?
3. People can still reject embryonic stem cell treatments.
The human body naturally rejects the items that are not part of its regular genetic makeup through its immune system response. That is why the people who go through an organ transplant procedure receive anti-rejection medication that slows or stops this response. Even if the embryonic stems cells go through their regular activation method, there is still the potential of rejection present.
Even if an embryonic clone of an individual could be created to product exact cells which mimic the body’s genetic makeup, there would still be a risk of rejection because of the genetic duplication process.
4. It can be argued that embryos do meet the definition of “life” from a scientific view.
There are currently three specific guidelines in the framework of the definition of life as we think of it when encountered on our planet or perhaps elsewhere in our solar system or galaxy one day.
• There must be a capacity for growth that produces functional activity.
• It must offer some type of reproduction capability during one stage of its existence.
• There must be a change which occurs over the lifetime of the cells in question that happens before death.
5. People fund research activities with their taxes.
Federal law in the United States prohibits taxpayer funding to be used for abortion services unless specific exceptions apply. What many people do not realize is that over $500 million in research funding has been given to this medical field since 1996 because even though portions of this field were outlawed, all existing stem cell lines currently being worked on at the time were grandfathered into the legislative process.
The Supreme Court affirmed the federal stem cell research could continue in 2013 despite a long-running appeal that such an action is a violation of the Dickey-Wicker Act that prohibits the destruction of an embryo.
6. It is a time-consuming process to create viable embryonic stem cells.
For the stem cells to become a viable research tool, they must undergo several months of development in strict laboratory conditions before they are valuable in any way. Then there is the cost involved with the process as well. The 2017 estimated federal funding for all categories of stem cell research was $1.58 billion. Embryonic stem cell research received $347 million, while umbilical cord blood or placenta-based stem cells received $34 million.
7. Many of the stem cell lines under research are two decades’ old.
Most of the approved embryonic stem cell research lines that are worked on in the United States were created on or before August 2001. Those lines were found to be contaminated with animal proteins, which seems to have prevented any of them from being created as a model to treat human disease. Only 16 out of the 70 lines approved by the federal government remain because a majority of them were inadequately characterized. These cells also came from an Israeli clinic, which means they do not incorporate the levels of racial and ethnic diversity that genuine research requires.
The pros and cons of embryonic stem cells look at the potential of what this new field of medical research could provide compared to the harm it may cause. There are deeper issues here that go beyond “we can” or “we shouldn’t.” Since a majority of embryos are thrown away, shouldn’t there be outrage over that fact from the pro-life movement? And since 1 in 6 attempted implants fails, is there not more to consider here than the intentional actions of research? By taking a look at all sides of this issue, the debate tends to become a complex set of moral judgments made on the individual level instead of a generic right or wrong answer to determine.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.