Eye for an Eye? Why I Refuse Treatment with Embryonic Stem Cells

When I was four months old, my parents took me to the doctor because they noticed that I had unusual eye movements. Doctors informed them that I had Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, a condition in which the optic nerve does not develop properly and does not make the appropriate connection to the brain. The condition is not genetic, and causes are currently unknown. According to the Blind Babies Foundation, Optic Nerve Hypoplasia is not progressive, which means that I will have the same amount of vision I had when I was born. Levels of vision vary among cases, but in my case, I have very limited vision of details around me (especially peripheral vision) and very poor depth perception. The doctors informed my parents that there is no cure for this condition, and that all they could do was try to help me as best as they could.

In recent years, a possible cure for Optic Nerve Hypoplasia has emerged. The condition could potentially be cured through stem cell research. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), stem cells are cells that have not specialized yet, so they can turn into any type of cell in the human body and replace damaged tissue. In my case, scientists could program stem cells to become optic nerve cells that would replace the underdeveloped part of the nerve. The most common source for stem cells is human embryos. When an embryo is a few days old, it has stem cells that will later specialize into specific parts of the body. At this stage, these cells could be programmed to become any cell and be used to cure diseases such as Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and Parkinson’s disease.

Although stem cell research may provide cures for diseases in the future, it is controversial because it destroys human embryos. Science has proven that an embryo is already a human life. Once an embryo is created, the genetic blueprint for a unique individual is already present. If the DNA of an embryo is analyzed, it will be human and different from the DNA of the mother and father. The Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary conducted a survey on embryology textbooks twenty years ago and found that most agreed that an embryo is already a human being. Today, this consensus remains. According to the article, the embryo is only one stage in development – the embryo is the same unique individual as the baby, child, and adult that enters and engages with the world.

An embryo’s personhood is often challenged based on the fact that many embryos die as a result of complications that endanger both the mother and child’s life. Many claim that an embryo cannot be treated as a person because this would mean that a pregnancy could not be ended if the mother’s life were in danger. However, saving the mother at the expense of the embryo does not necessarily deny the embryo’s personhood. First, not addressing complications would end both the mother and child’s life. Second, if an embryo dies naturally or due to complications, the action has not been premeditated. If an embryo dies because it has been created to be destroyed, however, we would be taking advantage of a being’s inability to defend its life. The same logic applies to people – natural deaths happen, but premeditated actions against another person are punished.

The arguments above suggest that an embryo is a person – it is a less-developed version of a child that will start with basic rights and will gain more rights as it develops. A child does not have all the rights that an adult has – such as the right to vote – but the child will grow up to obtain these rights. If we recognize that children have some rights, and then gain more as they become adults, there is no reason to exclude unborn children, as they are simply one more step in a development process we already recognize by granting rights according to age. If we are to give life itself any respect, an embryo must have the right to life – and certainly protection against being created specifically to be destroyed.

An unborn child’s right to life should be respected because it is simply a less-developed child. The embryo may depend on the mother to continue developing, but so also do children after they are born (a baby cannot survive if no one takes care of it). Any lines drawn to determine when an unborn child’s life should be respected are arbitrary. Respect for life is essential because it would be very difficult to justify the right to property, the right to a fair trial, or any other right if we do not respect the lives of the human beings who hold these rights.

Even those who acknowledge that an embryo is a unique individual may believe that using embryos benefits more people than it harms. However, if benefit was a good enough reason to justify an action, almost any action would be justified as long as it benefits enough people. American society has long rejected making decisions based purely on a cost-benefit analysis because we recognize that this could create a “tyranny of the majority.” It may be beneficial to limit my freedom of speech to a lot of people, but we would never do so simply based on a cost-benefit analysis. If we do not use cost-benefit analysis for the rest of our laws, there is no reason to assume that this rule is sufficient to guide our treatment of embryos.

Even those who are willing to accept that an embryo is normally a person might believe that those used for stem cell research should be treated differently. Currently, many scientists use “leftover” embryos from In Vitro Fertilization, a laboratory procedure that enables infertile couples to have children. While many embryos are created in a lab, only one is implanted into the woman’s uterus, which means that all other embryos will never continue to grow (unless they are frozen and implanted later, or adopted by another couple). Since these embryos will not continue to develop, scientists have used them as sources for stem cells.

While the embryos used may be “leftover,” they are not qualitatively different from any other embryos and, therefore, should not be treated any differently. It is terrible to think that we can kill unwanted embryos simply for being unwanted, while we value the desired, implanted embryos so much. Imagine the implications if we allowed ourselves to treat unwanted children in the same manner.

Even if one does not believe that using discarded embryos in research is unethical, using them as sources for stem cells is only a temporary solution. For research, scientists can use any stem cell because they are not trying to cure a specific patient. Once scientists begin to cure specific patients, however, they cannot easily use discarded embryos because the embryo that will provide the cure must be a genetic match to the patient. This means that a new embryo will have to be created in a lab using eggs or sperm from the patient or a relative that happens to be a genetic match. Both eggs and sperm cannot come from the same person, so the embryo will not be an exact match. This means that even if a match were created, the patient’s immune system might still reject and attack the new cells, thereby preventing them from becoming new tissue in the body. If scientists create a genetic match for the patient, they would no longer be using discarded embryos. They would be creating life with the specific aim of destroying it, and they would still have to deal with the possibility of rejection of the cells by the patient’s body.

Although there is plenty of evidence that an embryo is human, many who do not accept these arguments support stem cell research under the assumption that only embryos will be used, and that human life during its later stages will forever be respected. Researching on humans in later stages of life might seem to be more science fiction than fact. According to the NIH, however, scientists are in fact experimenting with tissue from 8 week old fetuses. Furthermore, it was recently reported by the New York Times that scientists in Oregon successfully cloned a human who survived long enough to turn into an embryo and serve as a source for stem cells. Scientists are already using cloning – a controversial practice – which suggests that research may continue perhaps for more than just stem cells. If we rationalize away unethical actions now, we are more susceptible to rationalize further unethical actions in the future. We would be sending the message that being unethical is acceptable as long as it is to our benefit. We must instead seek to preserve ethical practices by using our resources to research alternatives to embryonic stem cells, which will discourage future unethical action while still providing a cure for those who need it.

Despite the ethical problems faced by embryonic stem cell research, there is an alternative that could help save many lives without destroying life itself. According to Reuters, scientists from Japan and the United Kingdom won a Nobel Prize in 2012 for turning regular adult cells (such as skin cells) back into stem cells. If this research continues, adult stem cells could provide a cure for those of us who would benefit from this type of research, and would not destroy any lives in the process. Although adult stem cell research is a recent development, it is catching up quickly to embryonic stem cell research and has already shown promising results. Even for those who want the most effective cure as fast as possible and are not concerned of destroying embryos, waiting for adult stem cells is in their best interest, because these cells are less likely to be rejected by the human body. It is important for research in regenerative medicine to continue, but it must be done ethically, in a way that does not save a human life by destroying another one. Through adult stem cell research, there is universal hope – hope for those of us who could benefit from a cure, and hope for the unique, irreplaceable individuals who would be destroyed if this alternative did not exist.


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