Finding Ethically Acceptable Solutions for Therapeutic Human Stem Cell Research

Article excerpt


Katrien Devolder offers a compromise solution for the derivation of human embryonic stem cells that is designed to appease those who consider the killing of human embryos immoral. She proposes to build on a gradualist view of embryonic development in which the embryo merits special respect as human but does not possess ultimate value. Respect for the embryo must be weighed against other values, such as the desires of potential parents and the medical needs of patients who could benefit from stem cell therapy. Devolder also contends that William Hurlbut's "altered nuclear transfer" (ANT) proposal will not satisfy those who hold that the beginning of human life occurs at conception. In my critique of Devolder's position, I discuss why ANT and "oocyte assisted reprogramming" (OAR) are ethically questionable, and then review the epistemological value of the hylomorphic view of the human embryo, as well as the ethical importance of potentiality and intentionality. Finally, I argue for an expanded research effort in the area of adult stem cell therapy, which obviates the ethical dilemma associated with the manipulation or destruction of human embryos.


Katrien Devolder offers a compromise solution for the contemporary debate over whether it is ethically licit to derive pluripotent stem cells from human embryos. The most controversial issue for those who advocate the harvesting of human embryonic stem (hES) cells is to take into account the special moral worth the immature human being possesses in the eyes of many people. While only a few authors claim that the human being is a person from the moment of conception, several Christian ethicists defend the human identity of the embryo and its unique moral status. Devolder points out, however, that numerous individual scientists and governmental agencies have developed intermediate positions on this question in order to foster promising research with hES cells for therapeutic purposes. These individuals generally argue that this line of investigative activity offers the possibility of alleviating the debilitating effects of numerous diseases if it is vigorously fostered and adequately financed.1

While a variety of new techniques for deriving hES cells have been proposed recently, Devolder reminds us that these methods are not all acceptable to everyone on ethical grounds. In this article I expand on her assessment of "altered nuclear transfer" (ANT), extending that critique to "oocyte assisted reprogramming" (OAR), suggesting that, in the final analysis, these two methods could actually be morally equivalent. I then offer some critical observations of her own compromise solution, suggesting that it is faulty in several critical respects. As an alternative, I briefly discuss the possibility of pursuing additional research into the therapeutic use of adult stem cells, such as those that can be derived from bone marrow and cord blood, an approach that avoids the ethical problems associated with hES cell use.

In Search of Compromise

Katrien Devolder describes a proposal advanced by Howard Zucker and Don Landry in which hES cells are taken from surplus embryos produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF). She correctly concludes that this proposal is just "a redundant compromise" meant to appeal to those who already accept the morality of IVF. While one could make a distinction between the morality of IVF for reproductive purposes and for the procurement of stem cells, I point out elsewhere how IVF tends to de-personalize human conception, trivializes marital sexuality, and often entails the destruction of some embryos.2 Similar reservations apply to the establishment of colonies of hES cells derived from single-cell blastomeres obtained from two-day-old pre-implantation embryos.3 While the researchers who developed this technique report that it spares the embryo, in fact, embryos were destroyed in the study. Moreover, given the fact that the blastomere could be totipotent, even if an embryo were not destroyed, scientists could be disrupting the development of a new embryo. …