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Stem Cell Research and Abortion

Opposition to abortion and opposition to embryonic stem cell research go hand in hand.

Page Summary:

Embryonic stem research cannot take place apart from dead human embryos. Embryonic stem cells cannot be culled without killing the embryo. Whether these tiny human beings are explicitly killed for research purposes or not, the ethics of the matter do not change.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) tells us this about stem cells:

Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Because stem cells can differentiate into specialized cell types, they have the potential to replace or repair damaged tissue, be used for organ transplants and treat all sorts of diseases. Much research is left to be done, but the use of stem cells could potentially cure diabetes, Parkinson's disease, spinal chord injuries, heart conditions, and more.

Before going further, it must be emphasized that there are different types of stem cells, which carry vastly different ethical implications. Until recently, researchers worked with two kinds of stem cells: embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and "somatic" or "adult" stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the undifferentiated cells from which all our body parts, organs, tissues, etc. originally developed. These cells are obtained by transferring the inner cell mass of the embryo into a culture dish, but can only be done by killing the embryo. This is what makes embryonic stem cell research an ethical question. Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells found in various tissues throughout the body, including the brain, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, muscle, skin, teeth, etc., and are thought to maintain and repair damaged tissue. These can be obtained without harm to the donor.

In 2007, a new stem cell method was discovered that actually "reprograms" ordinary cells (like skin cells) to revert into an embryonic stem cell-like state. These stem cells are called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) and are essentially no different than embryonic stem cells, with one exception: they do not require the killing of embryos. The scientist who discovered this reprogramming technique, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan, said the following:

When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way... There is no way now to get around some use of embryos. But my goal is to avoid using them (NY Times).

Dr. Yamanaka states that iPSCs overcome two main problems with embryonic stem cell research: (1) immune rejection: since the embryonic stem cells that would theoretically be introduced into patients do not carry the same genetic code, the body may reject them (as has been observed in studies on mice); and (2) the ethical dilemna: the only way to derive embryonic stem cells is to kill embryos. With the discovery of iPSCs, embryo-like stem cells can be derived from a patient's own cells, which carry the same genes and will not be rejected by the body, and, more importantly, they do not require the killing of embryos.

Despite the ethical controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research, and the scientific advances which allow for the ethical controversy to be avoided altogether, the U.S. government began providing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2001. Prior to this, federal funds could not be used for embryonic stem cell research, but President Bush changed that when he adopted a policy that allowed government funding to be applied towards research on a limited number of embryonic stem cell lines. The statement that spelled out those limitations reads as follows:

Research on human embryonic stem cell lines may receive [federal] funding if the cell line meets the following criteria: removal of cells from the embryo must have been initiated before August 9, 2001, when the President outlined this policy; and the embryo from which the stem cell line was derived must no longer have had the possibility of developing further as a human being. The embryo must have been created for reproductive purposes but no longer be needed for them. Informed consent must have been obtained from the parent(s) for the donation of the embryo, and no financial inducements for donation are allowed.

President Bush tried to toe the moral line by ensuring that no new embryos would be created and destroyed for stem cell research. On March 9, 2009, President Obama issued a new executive order, revoking the former policy. Federal funding can now be used for embryonic stem cell research, without regard to creation date and without regard to the future life of the embryo. Dr. Curt Civin, who serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine defends the practice this way, "This was already life that was going to be destroyed, the choice is throw them away or use them for research." Dr. Civin conveniently ignores a third option: embryo adoption. Frozen embryos need not be consigned to the trashcan or the microscope!

Largely lost in the discussion is the fact that, in the eight years that the federal government has funded embryonic stem cell research, the proposed benefits are still wholly speculative (President Obama admits the potential benefit "remains unknown"). To date no human embryonic stem cells have actually been used to cure or treat diseases (although the FDA recently cleared the California-based company Geron to use human embryonic stem cells for clinical trial). Adult stem cells, on the other hand, have already helped with over 73 diseases (this according to the Family Research Council and peer-reviewed published research). Time will tell what scientists can do with iPSCs, but remarkable research is already being done. In fact, Dr. Oz surprised Michael J. Fox and Oprah Whinfrey when he declared on her show that "the stem cell debate is dead". It is not embryonic stem cell research that will ultimately cure diseases like Parkinson's, he maintains, but rather iPSCs. Dr. Oz believes iPSC based cures are less than ten years away.

Of course, even if you want to defend the ethical merits of embryonic stem cell research, do not confuse the debate over the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research with the debate over embryonic stem cell research itself. The opportunity for private corporations to acquire and study fetal tissue samples has long been in place. For those individuals and companies who have no ethical qualms with the "therapeutic" killing of embryos, they have the legal freedom to pursue their research on their own time and their own dime. Objecting taxpayers need not foot the bill, until now. That's how the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research changes the debate. To better illustrate this distinction, let's compare embryonic stem cell research with legal prostitution. As you may or may not know, prostitution is lawful throughout much of the state of Nevada. Despite the fact that lots of people find prostitution to be morally reprehensible, the state of Nevada has made it lawful for its citizens to engage in. Now what if, instead of just making prostitution legal, Nevada also made it state funded – requiring its citizens to pay the operating costs of brothels across the state? You see where we're going with this. A strong case can be made for outlawing embryonic stem cell research outright, just as a strong case can be made for outlawing prostitution outright. But even if you're going to defend the merits of the practices in question, how can it possibly be reasonable for objecting citizens to be made to pay for them?!

The reason people who oppose abortion tend to also oppose embryonic stem cell research is because extracting stem cells from embryos kills them. Embryonic stem cell lines cannot be established apart from dead embryos. Therefore, since embryos (just like fetuses and newborns and infants and adults) are human beings, embryonic stem cell research is unjust and unjustified. It is the killing of one person (actually many persons) in the theoretic attempt to save other people. Is it justifiable to kill one person in order to spare someone else from disease? At its essence, the driving philosophy behind embryonic stem cell research is one that places less value on individual human life than it does on the "greater human good". While this may sound altruistic on the surface, it has been the historic basis for all manner of human rights abuses.

This page was last updated on September 03, 2009. To cite this page in a research paper, visit: "Citing Abort73 as a Source."

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7 Comments on Stem Cell Research and Abortion

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Jan 25, 2013 / 01:46 CST)

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Alo Konsen (May 03, 2011 / 13:21 CST)

Happy to help.

What’s your opinion on embryonic stem cell research now?

Alo Konsen (Apr 29, 2011 / 07:18 CST)

Jsparco,

It all depends on which cells you’re talking about.  Here on this site—and in my article—we’re objecting to the use of stem cells resulting from:

1) elective abortions; or

2) embryos at such early stages of development that the extraction of stem cells results in their death.

Do you understand now?

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