In the last century, stem cell research has come a long way. Stem cells are critical because they are the original cells of the human body. All other cells come from the stem cells after they differentiate. Since their discovery, researchers have discovered different types of stem cells. The most controversial of these being embryonic stem cells. These cells are created from the embryo when it grows into a cluster of about 100 cells and are harvested from their nuclei.
The debate behind embryonic stem cells has caused society to choose between its responsibility to prevent or alleviate suffering and its responsibility to respect the value of human life. The use of embryonic stem cells is unethical because there are currently several alternatives that have a similar effect for the patient. Embryonic Stem Cells are grown from cells found in the embryo when it is just a few days old. At this point the embryo can either continue to grow as a human in its earliest form of development, or it can be destroyed by scientists looking to further their research in the field.
As the baby grows in its mother’s womb, these cells begin to differentiate and become the heart, liver, kidneys and all of the 210 kinds of tissue found in a human body. Even though most of these cells become differentiated, all humans retain some stem cells” (Sacrificed without Consent). Because stem cells are so versatile, they can be replicated and used for the treatment of many diseases, such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, heart disease and cancer. Some of these diseases result when a single cell goes missing or is defective.
The image above shows which stem cells help with each part of the body and problems associated with these parts. The goal for stem cell research is to discover how to reprogram cells to cure these diseases. The most popular and controversial stem cells are those of the smallest humans. Embryonic stem cells eventually become a child’s organs and tissues, but, when used in research, are removed from a human embryo in the first week of life, thus ending any chance of the baby’s survival. A huge debate in the realm of research is whether it is ethical to use embryos that have been frozen at fertility clinics for the majority of research.
These “leftover” embryos were conceived to bring about an in vitro fertilization pregnancy, but they were never implanted into their mother’s womb. When a woman gets pregnant with in vitro fertilization and not all of the embryos are implanted, fertility clinics allow couples to destroy them, donate them to another couple, or freeze them in case they want to give birth to another child at a later time” (Sacrificed without Consent). Some scientists create embryos strictly for the purpose of stem cell research. The life of that embryo was created simply to die which is not ideal when considering ethics.
They are so desirable by scientists because embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the potential to grow into several different types of cells, to help the baby develop properly. Ending the life of an unborn child is a rampant issue in todays society. Recently a major deciding factor in our election was the candidate’s stance on abortion. The candidates understand it is an important point to get across in their platform, because it is ending the life of a child in the womb. The main point of the abortion debate is when human life begins.
The Catholic church believes all forms of life is sacred and human life begins at conception, therefore, a human embryo is human life (Lo). Embryonic Stem Cell research should be given the same ethical consideration as abortion. Often, a woman’s right to make decisions for her own body, overshadow the rights of the child. It is ironic to think that these cells have the potential to save many lives, but in order to save these lives, so many lives must be destroyed. The Catholic Church addresses the issues of abortion and embryonic stem cell research together.
It teaches that the destruction of human life, in any form, is morally unacceptable. Pope John Paul II states: “This evaluation of the morality of abortion is to be applied also to the recent forms of intervention on human embryos which, although carried out for purposes legitimate in themselves, inevitably involve the killing of those embryos. This is the case with experimentation on embryos, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the field of biomedical research and is legally permitted in some countries.
Although “one must uphold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but rather are directed to its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival”, it must nonetheless be stated that the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person.
“This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses- -sometimes specifically “produced” for this purpose by in vitro fertilization–either to be used as “biological material” or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases. The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act. (EV, 63)” (Pollice). One argument against church teaching is that embryos are not yet human. Embryos are humans in their smallest form and have full human nature.
The Church also teaches that all humans have a soul, so even though they cannot maintain their own life, embryos have a soul with will and emotions. Pope John Paul II once again states: “Human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence, including the initial phase which precedes birth. All human beings, from their mothers’ womb, belong to God who searches them and knows them, who forms them and knits them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when they are tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow whose days are numbered and whose vocation is even now written in the “book of life” (cf. Ps 139: 1, 13-16).
There too, when they are still in their mothers’ womb–as many passages of the Bible bear witness–they are the personal objects of God’s loving and fatherly providence. (EV, 61)” (Pollice). Life begins at conception. There is a major controversy against Catholic teaching that this is incorrect, however the Bible states that Mary was free from sin from the moment of her conception. It says nothing of an Immaculate Infusion, the Immaculate Implantation, or the Immaculate Birth.
Mary is the Immaculate Conception in that at the moment of her conception the person Mary, fully human in every sense and possessing a human soul, had no sin. Without a soul, being free from sin from conception would not matter. Every person was once an embryo. Therefore, anyone can think of what would happen if a scientist had harvested embryos from their mother and destroyed their life. The Catholic Church teaches all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, their creator.
Embryos, being human, are made in God’s image for a purpose, this purpose is to grow and flourish as one of his children. An embryo is no less human than a baby that has come full term in the womb. It is simply in a different stage of development, similar to the different stages of development outside the womb. A baby safe, inside the womb is no less human than a baby in its mother’s arms.
Just like an adult is no more human than that infant. All human beings, no matter what stage of development, are equal in viability of existence. The infusion of the soul at conception is not irrelevant; it is absolutely crucial! One cannot be fully human without a soul. Embryos are not potential human life, or partial human life. They are human persons in every sense of what it means to be human. ” (Pollice). Science is a gift from God and can be used in many ways for the good of humanity. However, the sacredness of human life must always come before science so as not to destroy life or the source of life and love. (Pollice).
The Church will always defend all human life, from the moment of conception to natural death, from the turmoil of science and technology that is continuing to lose more and more ethical consideration. When scientists create an embryo strictly for the purpose of research it destroys the sacredness of human life. Embryonic stem cells have forced society to choose between its responsibility to prevent or alleviate suffering and its responsibility to respect the value of human life. It is impossible to respect both moral principles. To obtain embryonic stem cells, the embryo has to be destroyed. This means destroying a human life.
But embryonic stem cell research could lead to the discovery of new medical treatments that would alleviate the suffering of many people and embryos created in research would have a better chance of meeting the needs of patients because they can be produced from a specific patient as a source of cells that are compatible with that patient (Hug). If there was not a moral issue with this situation. researchers would not be looking for other means of finding the cells to help cure so many diseases. One alternative method to the use of embryonic stem cells is creating induced pluripotent stem cells.
They send a normal adult stem cell back to an undifferentiated, pluripotent stem cell state by introducing DNA from another source, into the cell. This alters the original state of the cell. Using these cells is limited because they can only differentiate into certain cell types (Schroth). Researchers have also developed a way to turn mature adult cells, also called somatic cells, into cells extremely similar to embryonic stem cells. Researchers have demonstrated, in a preclinical model, a new and unique way that cells can be reprogrammed, a phenomenon they call stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.
This process does not require the introduction of new outside DNA, the process commonly used to induce adult cells back into a state of pluripotentency (Schroth). Researchers, drawing from the ability of a plant callus — a node of plant cells that is created by injuring an existing plant — to grow into a new plant, hypothesized that any mature adult cell, once differentiated into a specific cell type, could be de-differentiated through a natural process that does not require inserting genetic material into the cells.
Beginning with mature adult cells, researchers let them multiply. After stressing the cells almost to the point of death by exposing them to stresses including trauma, a low oxygen environment, and an acidic environment, researchers discovered that within a period of only a few days, the cells survived and recovered from the stressful stimulus by naturally reverting into a state that is equivalent to an embryonic stem cell.
The stem cells created by exposure to the external stimuli were then able to redifferentiate and mature into any type of cell and grow into any type of tissue, depending on the environment into which they were placed (Schroth). To examine the growth potential of these cells, researchers used mature blood cells from mice that had been genetically altered with a specific mutation to show green under a specific light. They stressed the cells from the blood by exposing them to an acidic environment and found that in the days following the stress, those cells returned to a state similar to an embryonic stem cell.
Researchers hypothesize that these findings raise the possibility that unknown cellular functions that are activated through external stress may set mature adult cells free from their current role and allow them to return to their original state. “Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation,” said Vacanti, a Professor at Harvard Medical School (Schroth).
If this process can be demonstrated in human cells, then, without the need for genetic manipulation, researchers may be able to create embryonic stem cells specific to each individual after a simple procedure such as a skin biopsy or a blood sample, which in turn could be used to create tissue without the need to insert any outside genetic material into that cell, creating endless possibilities for therapeutic options. Umbilical cord blood was once medical waste, but is now known to be a useful source of blood stem cells. Cord blood has been used to treat children with certain blood diseases since 1989.
After a baby is born, cord blood is left in the umbilical cord and placenta. It poses no risk to the mother or baby and is easy to collect, making it an ideal source for stem cells. The umbilical cord contains haematopoietic (blood) stem cells which are rare and typically found in bone marrow. These stem cells can make every type of cell in the blood. This includes red cells, white cells and platelets. They are responsible for maintaining blood production throughout our lives and they have been used for many years in bone marrow transplants to treat blood diseases.
Cord blood is used to treat children with cancerous blood disorders such as leukemia. The cord blood is transplanted into the patient, where the stem cells can make new, healthy blood cells to replace those damaged by the patient’s disease or by a medical treatment such as chemotherapy for cancer. Cord blood is a useful alternative to bone marrow transplants. It is easier to collect and can be stored frozen until it is needed. It is also less likely than bone marrow to cause rejection by the body. Cord blood transplants have some limits. To treat an adult, it requires two units of cord blood.
Clinical trials using “double cord blood transplantation” for adults have demonstrated outcomes similar to bone marrow transplants (Gupta). In the future, Embryonic Stem Cells should should lose their place in medicine. Even though they could be the cure to many diseases and disorders, scientists are searching for a greater alternative, which means there is some moral and ethical dilemma with using them. The solution could lie within our reach today, but studies must continue in order for the debate to settle on society’s responsibility to respect the value of human life.