An Ethical Minefield: Stem Cells

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Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
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An Ethical Minefield: Stem Cells

Allison Bruce

Stem cells derived from either embryos or adults do not constitute human life. Therefore, stem cells should not be afforded the same protection as human life. The purpose of my analysis is to examine particular ethical questions surrounding stem cell research. Though I am fully aware of the benefits and risks of stem sell research, I am not going to explore the science or results of various research studies.

Stem cells provide the foundation for every organ, tissue, and cell in the body to develop. Three major types of stem cells exist: totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent. Totipotent cells contain the complete genetic information needed to manufacture all the cells of the body as well as the placenta. Totipotent cells are only present in the first stage after the egg has been fertilized, after three or four divisions the cells become increasingly specialized. This second stage of division results in pluripotent cells. These cells are extremely adaptable, and have the capacity to develop into any cell type with the exception of the placenta. The further division of pluripotent cells creates multipotent cells. Multipotent cells are far more specialized than the previous two types of stem cells, and therefore can only produce limited cell types. Multipotent cells can generate hematopoietic cells, blood stem cells with the ability to create red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, but are unable to develop into brain cells. Terminally differentiated cells are the products of the chain of stem cell divisions. These cells are programmed to serve a specific function. Terminally differentiated cells comprise the embryo (1)

Stem cells can be obtained from embryos as well as the adult body. Embryonic stem cells are derived from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, an early embryo consisting of approximately 150 cells. Adult stem cells are commonly retrieved from bone marrow (2). Totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent cells are all present in the embryo, but only pluripotent and multipotent cells can be found in adults. Embryonic stem cells are highly versatile, and scientists assert have more potential for research than adult stem cells, because embryonic stem cells have the capacity to generate practically every type of cell in the human body (1). I will focus my analysis of human life only on embryonic stem cells because of the more controversial nature of the debate.

After examining the scientific components of stem cells, I can now analyze the bulk of my assertion, the controversy over human life. In a speech to the American public regarding stem cells, President Bush vows to "foster and encourage respect for life," (3). The President's reason for not granting federal tax dollars for stem cell research is, "because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life," (3). Herein lies the problem, "potential for life" is just that potential. It is not in and of itself human life. President Bush does not outright declare stem cells to be human life. To use a rudimentary example, a grape seed is not a grape. Under favorable conditions and with an elapsed period of time, the seed will become a grape, but it is simply not a grape when in the seed stage. It is important to differentiate between the two stages. I will concede stem cells do hold the potential for life, but destroying the embryo ends this potential. Without a potential for life, stem cells cannot constitute human life regardless of how the potential was destroyed.

In a speech to the Vatican, Pope John Paul II denounces stem cell research based on the fact it, "destroys human life in its embryonic stage," (4). As previously noted, embryonic stem cells are extracted from a 150 cell blastocyst. I do not consider a cluster of 150 cells to be human life. Multipotent stem cells extracted from an embryo are designed to have a prescribed function, but because the cluster of cells as a whole is not developed further the multipotent stem cells cannot and are not functioning. Because the multipotent stem cells, the most specialized form of stem cells, are not functioning, the cluster of cells, in essence, is a blank slate as well as lacking the vital characteristics of human life.

Through analyzing President Bush and the Pope's comments, new questions arise, where does human life begin? Does human life begin when "potential" is realized? What is "potential"? What are the characteristics of human life?

I cannot attempt to provide concrete scientific answers any of these questions, but can explore my opinions and the implications of different opinions/answers. In my opinion, human life begins at birth. Not after a baby's first breath, because I consider stillborn babies to be human. Birth is the act of completely exiting the mother's body, with the exception of conjoined twins, birth implies complete physical separation from other human beings. Having said this, birth is not final until the umbilical cord is severed. A fetus is the term used before birth, for me this distinction elucidates the term potential. The potential for life is a fetus, birth is the realization of this potential, and therefore birth denotes the beginning of human life. From this assessment, I believe the basic characteristic of human life is birth. With the wide range of physical and mental disorders affecting a small percentage of babies, it would be almost impossible to attribute anything else such as: sight, sensing touch or pain, movement, or cognition, as a basic characteristic of human life.

From my political perspective, it is important human life is defined as beginning at birth. If human life was categorically defined before birth there would be sufficient cause to overturn the current federal abortion law. With the exception of state sanctioned murders, intentionally killing another human being is strictly prohibited by all 50 states. If an aborted fetus was determined to be a human, the doctor who performed the abortion would be subject to premeditated murder indictments, and the mother of the fetus would be subject to charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

In conclusion, stem cells provide the foundation for the entire body, but alone stem cells do not constitute human life. Human life is characterized by birth. All stages before birth, including totipotent, pluripotent, and multipotent stem cells, have the potential for human life. The potential for human life is realized at birth. Characterizing human life before birth would give the judicial system an adequate basis to overturn Roe v. Wade, and therefore restrict individual autonomy over one's body.


1) The Stem Cell Research Foundation.

2) International Society for Stem Cell Research.

3) A Whitehouse press release dated August 9, 2001, on the official government Whitehouse site.

4) A Vatican press release dated November 10, 2003, on the official Vatican website.

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