In 2009, President Obama removed restrictions on federal funding of research on new stem cell lines derived from spare human embryos created by means of in vitro fertilization (IVF) for the purpose of fertility treatment. Typically, the spare embryos remaining after a successful implantation has been achieved are discarded.
Congress had previously prohibited federal funds from being used for destruction of embryos, but President Obama only authorized the use of such funds for stem cell research on the discarded embryos. Federal funds would not pay for the creation of embryos for the purpose of establishing stem cell lines. Only discarded embryos, created for the specific purpose of fertility treatment but no longer of use for that purpose, and whose creation and disposal were funded by the private sector, would be used for subsequent, federally funded stem cell research.
However, in August 2010, in response to a lawsuit initiated by two scientists who work with adult stem cells, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction stopping federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. Then, in September, the U.S. Court of Appeals temporarily stayed the injunction, and in early December a three-judge, federal appellate panel began its review, questioning the lawyers representing the opposing counsels. It is not unlikely that this case will end up in the Supreme Court.
Opponents of hESC research contend that even though spare embryos are thrown away, they should be entitled to the same moral status as children or adult human beings and should not be used for research purposes.
For example, in the May 1, 2009, issue of GEN, Gilbert Meilaender, Ph.D., in his “Arguments against President Obama’s Stem Cell Policies”, argued that even though the spare embryos “are destined to die…does not make them different from irretrievably dying patients or prisoners condemned to death. We would not congratulate ourselves upon a policy that proposed to use those classes of human subjects…for research purposes.” Nevertheless, there are a number of flaws in such reasoning.
Ronald A. Lindsay, in his book Future Bioethics, extensively discusses the flaws in entitling embryos to the same moral status as children or adult human beings, but I will only mention a few.
First of all, spare embryos are destined to die because they have been created by means of IVF to provide backup in case pregnancy is not successful. The creators of the spare embryos know that these embryos will be destroyed. If the embryos possessed the same moral status as children or adults, the creators would be charged with murder or as accomplices to murder.
Secondly, embryos require a placenta and a uterus in order to develop as a fetus. If spare embryos were simply stored in perpetuity but possessed the same moral status as children, then the creators would be charged with unlawful imprisonment.
Third, the decision to either discard or store embryos in perpetuity completely eliminates the potential for the embryos to develop into people. Clearly, the law does not punish those who perform IVF or who store or discard spare embryos, essentially because the law does not consider embryos to be people. Moreover, even most people who object to hESC research do not have moral objections to IVF, yet IVF entails the creation of spare embryos.
If we accept the legitimacy and the moral basis for practicing IVF, then we should accept the legitimacy and the moral basis for conducting stem cell research on embryos that were created as backups for IVF fertility treatment but are no longer needed following a successful pregnancy.
Dr. Meilaender asserted that President Obama’s “policy fails to provide the moral vision both our science and our politics need.” On the contrary, what would be immoral is a policy mandating the discarding of cells that are clearly not people, not even potential people if not attached to a placenta and not residing in a uterus, instead of permitting cultivation of the cells so as to learn more about embryonic development and cell differentiation in order to develop new cellular therapies. Such therapies would be applicable for the treatment of conditions such as spinal cord injury, heart disease, liver disease, and Alzheimer disease.
To argue that we can obviate this dispute by focusing solely on adult stem cell research implies that we already know that the results of such research, without further advancements in hESC research, will lead to cures of otherwise intractable diseases. We obviously don’t know that. Indeed, the knowledge base required for working with adult stem cells, otherwise known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), has depended on previous hESC research, and further advances in iPSC research will undoubtedly depend on continuing advances in hESC research.
Moreover, as Ewen Callaway explained in the December 9, 2010, issue of Nature, recipes for making iPSC currently depend on virus-mediated introduction of one to four foreign genes into the adult cells. Potential side effects from implanting the resulting stem cells into patients might include the development of tumors. Reducing the number of foreign genes inserted from four to one requires the addition of other factors such as proteins, RNA, or small molecules. Potential side effects from adding these other factors might include unintended reprogramming of the target cells, triggering of immune responses, and unintended targeting of molecular receptors.
Lindsay, in Future Bioethics, perhaps best summarized the importance of the relationship of hESC to iPSC when he wrote, “Trying to conduct research on cell development while refusing to fund embryonic stem cell research is analogous to trying to determine the causes of global warming without funding research on greenhouse gas emissions.”