The Ethical Issues of Stem Cell Research 

While stem cell research holds the potential to contribute to the development of many different cures and treatments, quite recently, it has attracted much attention from both the media and public on its ethics.

What exactly are ethics? Princeton University defines ethics as "a system of principles governing morality and acceptable conduct" (Citation 75). Biomedical stem cell research also works on the basis of ethics to always keep in consideration of what is acceptable and what is not for basic research or translational treatment or cure.

Read the following page to find out more about the ethical issues of stem cell research.


Embryonic Stem Cell Research: When does life begin, and how far can we go to save another life?

Embryonic stem cell research has attracted, perhaps, the largest amount of attention due to its controversial methods. To extract human embryonic stem cells from an embryo, the embryo itself must be destroyed.

Ultimately, the argument for and against embryonic stem cell research lies at whether it is ethical to take a potential life, even if the embryo only yet has the potential to become a human being.

According to EuroStemCell, a stem cell organization consisting of over 90 European stem cell and regenerative medicine research labs, several arguments for defining the moral status of an embryo, but each argument holds pros and cons.

EuroStemCell defines "moral status" as the point after which the embryo cannot be used for research.

Sperm and egg in fertilization. Is the embryo a human being at this point? (Image Citation 56)

While people believe that embryos are human beings, and that using them in embryonic stem cell research is immoral, others believe that stem cell research can help save numerous lives. (Image Citation 57


Argument 1: Embryos have moral status after fertilization. 

For: The embryo is always a human being. The very potential to become a human being is the exact essence of humanity.


Against: Embryos cannot be developed unless they are transferred to the uterus of a woman. They have no psychological, emotional or mental development until the transfer takes place.


Argument 2: An embryo has full moral status after 14 days.

For: The embryo can no longer develop into a twin. Before this period, it has no central nervous system or senses. If organs can be taken from those declared 'brain dead', embryos without nervous systems can also be used for research.



Against: An embryo, once again, always has the potential to become a human being. The presence or no-presence of one organ does not remove the humanity from a human.


Argument 3: An embryo has increasing moral status as it develops. 

For: Embryos can be assigned several stages of development.

1. Implantation of the actual embryo into the uterus wall around six days after fertilization.
2. Appearance of the primitive streak – the beginnings of the nervous system – at approximately 14 days.
3. A phase when baby could survive if born prematurely.
4. Birth.

The stage of life at which it is lost can help us identify the moral stage at which the embryo can no longer be used for research.



Against: A person's life and interest are not protected because they are valuable from the point of view of the universe, but because they are important to the person concerned. Whatever moral status the human embryo has for us, the life that it lives has a value to the embryo itself. The stages of life play no role in the value of life. Death is equivalent for all.

 Argument 4: An embryo has no moral status.

For: If we destroy blastocysts before implantation into the uterus, we do not harm it because it has no beliefs, desires, expectations, aims or purposes to be harmed. In addition, if donors give consent to providing the embryo, it has no value for the donors and can thus be used for research.


Against: By destroying a blastocyst, it means that it is prevented from becoming what it was to become – a human being with desires, expectations, aims, or purposes.


Inevitable Death Versus Utility: Where does ethical embryonic stem cell research begin?

In vitro fertilization clinics allow couples to produce children without the traditional process of reproduction if a problem in reproduction or the reproductive organs arises. Many embryos are created in IVF clinics - the couple selects an arbitrary embryos and the rest of the embryos are discarded. Are these embryos allowable for embryonic stem cell research, because they would be discarded and destroyed anyways? Even though they may not be as diverse, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy remarks, from a therapeutic or research point of view, is using these otherwise-discarded embryos for useful research purposes ethical? Where do the lines of utility value and morality intersect?

(Citation 79) (Citation 80)

The process of in vitro fertilization. Is the use of to-be-discarded embryos ethical for embryonic stem cell research? (Image Citation 58)


Safety: Can Stem Cell Research Cause Problems? 

While stem cell therapies are designed to cure diseases, is it possible that they may cause them as well? In other words, is stem cell research truly safe?

Stem cells, in an essence, are cells that can rapidly proliferate to produce other cells. What if scientists accidently coax cells to proliferate without any end? The result of inserting these cells into a human body would inevitably be a collection of tumors, or cancer. Accidental mutations in normal stem cells (such as through the use of vectors) may cause them to become cancer stem cells, which are resistant to chemotherapy or other cancer treatments.

If stem cells coaxed to become one cell type accidently become another cell type, what would happen? Surely, malignant teratomas (tumor-like collections of cells with three germ layers) could form in the body.

(Citation 81) (Citation 82) (Citation 83)

Stem cells, if accidently coaxed, may have the potential to become cancer stem cells and proliferate uncontrollably in the body. (Image Citation 59)


Nature & Man: Is Stem Cell Research a Form of Man's Attempt to "Play God"? 

Some bioethicists and people argue that this 'control over life' is a form of "playing God", i.e. altering what God and Nature has bestowed us with. By modifying stem cells and using them to treat the human body, they argue, the natural placement of organic elements in the body is disturbed, leading to a disruption in the way we were designed by nature.

A particularly striking example of this ethical issue lies in embryonic stem cell research. Bioethicists often remark that the power to control life and death (i.e. using an embryo for research and destroying it, versus not using it and keeping it intact) is interfering with work that God is responsible for. According to this theory of ethics, life and death should not be in the hands of humans but rather in the hand of God.

(Citation 84) (Citation 85)

Is stem cell research a human attempt to "play god" by controlling the life and death of embryos? (Image Citation 60


Summary of Ethics in Stem Cell Research 

After a thorough analysis, it must be said that a consideration of ethics in stem cell research is certainly humbling. While there are many more questions than answers, the following ethical questions about stem cell research can be seen as some of the most pertinent:

  1. Where does life begin?
  2. Does embryonic stem cell research become ethical for embryos that are to be discarded intentionally?
  3. How safe is stem cell research for treatments and cures?
  4. Are humans attempting to "play God" through stem cell research?
  5. Is there an extent to which we, as humans, can go to find cures and treatments?

Supporters of California's Proposition 71 (in favor of state-funded stem cell research). (Image Citation 61)


According to the Learn.Genetics website by The University of Utah, the following questions must be considered for each application of stem cell technologies, as well as before an opinion on stem cell research is made:

  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the risks?
  • Whom will the technology help? Does it have the potential to hurt anyone?
  • What does this mean for me? For my family? For others around me?
  • Why might others not share my view? 

    (Citation 86)


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