What's the Big Deal About Those Tiny Little Embryos?

Jason Dulle

Stem-cell research has received a lot of media attention in recent days due to the 2004 presidential race (in which stem-cell research was a dividing issue), the passing of stem-cell legislation in New Jersey (where the cloning of human embryos for their stem-cells is now state-funded), California's stem-cell amendment, the passing of Ronald Reagan and Christopher Reeve, as well as continued public campaigning for embryonic stem-cell research from Michael J. Fox. Unfortunately, very little attention has been given to a scientific and moral analysis of the research. This inattention has been filled in by media hype, junk science, empty promises, misinformation, and faulty moral reasoning.

Two of the more prominent voices have been John Kerry and Ron Reagan Jr. On October 4th 2004 John Kerry said, "The hard truth is that when it comes to stem cell research, this president is making the wrong choice to sacrifice science for extreme right-wing ideology. … This underscores, in my judgment, the perils of having the president who turns his back on science in favor of ideology and as a result abandons millions of Americans' hopes."

Ron Reagan Jr. capitalized on the death of his father to bring positive media awareness to embryonic stem-cell research-research he falsely claims can cure the disease his father suffered from (Alzheimer's). At the 2004 Democratic National Convention he framed the debate in the following terms: "We can choose between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology. This is our moment, and we must not falter. Whatever else you do come Nov. 2, I urge you, please, cast a vote for embryonic stem cell research."

In no uncertain terms these statements imply that those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research are science-hating, right-wing, old-school, unreasonable, uncompassionate, ignorant fools. Why such harsh words? What's the big deal over these tiny little embryos? The deal is big…real big.

What is a Stem Cell, and Where Do They Come From?

A stem cell is an "undifferentiated cell," meaning it has yet to become one of the more than 200 types of somatic cells. They are found in embryos at the blastocyst stage of development (approximately 1 week of age), umbilical-cord blood, and in some adult tissues.

Stem cells are important because they hold the potential to treat or cure many types of disease. Disease is caused by the uncontrolled multiplication of bad cells; i.e. cells no longer performing according to their function. As these maverick cells multiply they eventually cause the body to break down (disease). Because stem-cells can morph into virtually any type of somatic cell when properly manipulated to do so, they provide a rich source of "good" cells that can act as healing agents when injected into the diseased area of one's body.

The Issue

Stem cell research itself is not the issue; the source of the stem cells is. There are two types of stem-cell research: adult stem-cell research (ASCR) and embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR). Only the latter is morally problematic because of the method through which embryonic stem cells are obtained: an embryo (a full human being in its first stage of development) must be killed. ASCR does not require the destruction of human beings.

To understand the issue more fully some basic embryology will be helpful. As a newly conceived zygote develops it forms a hollow ball called a blastula. Inside this blastula are the stem-cells that will eventually differentiate into over 200 specialized tissues/cells. Ronald Bailey describes the process of obtaining these stem-cells as follows: "Embryos…are grown in petri dishes for about a week, at which point they have divided into a microscopic, hollow ball of about 100 cells. Researchers then remove the inner cell mass, the cells of which can differentiate into all the kinds of tissues in a human body."1 While this process sounds so scientific and sanitary, he forgot to mention the fact that the human embryo has to be killed to obtain those cells. It is the killing of those human embryos that we find morally problematic.

ESCR is not just morally problematic; it is unnecessary as well. Adult stem cells (gleaned from teeth pulp, fat, the spleen, etc.) offer more promise of providing treatments/cures for disease than do embryonic stem cells, and no human is destroyed in the process of extraction. The British Medical Journal goes so far as to say, "The need for fetal cells as a source of stem cells for medical research may soon be eclipsed by the more readily available and less controversial adult stem cells."2 Adult stem-cells (ASCs) have already successfully treated multiple sclerosis, lupus, sickle cell anemia, spinal cord injuries, and Parkinson's disease; repaired cartilage damage, and heart damage; grown new corneas to restore sight to blind patients; new blood vessels to rescue legs from gangrene.3 Embryonic stem-cells (ESCs) have not treated or cured anyone! They have a habit of developing tumors because scientists cannot control the differentiation of the stem cells. Wouldn't it be wise to spend our valuable tax dollars on research that is both ethical and useful, rather than on research that is ethically suspect and has produced no hope of profitability to date?

Scientists know ESCs are not promising and cannot heal the diseases they are purported to heal, but as stem cell researcher Ronald D.G. McKay told Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss, "People need a fairy tale. Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand." In fact, ESCR will probably never be able to help Alzheimer's patients because that disease is a whole-brain, not cellular disease. The junk science is being put forward, however, because it generates support for the bio-tech agenda.

Two Questions of Ethical Concern Relating to Our Handling of Life

The morality of ESCR hinges on two important questions: (1) What is it? (2) What gives humans value?

What is It?

We cannot answer the question, "Is it right to kill embryos?" until we first answer the question, "What is an embryo?"4 All questions relating to our treatment of the unborn are bound up in this one question. Is the embryo a member of the human family? If so, no justification for taking their life is adequate; if not, no justification for taking their life is necessary. If embryos are human beings, research on them should be conducted within the same guidelines established for research on other children.

Those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research pose the following argument:

P1 It is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being (moral)
P2 ESCR takes the life of an innocent human being (factual)
ESCR is wrong

Anybody wishing to discredit our argument must demonstrate at least one of these premises to be faulty. Seeing that virtually every human being-religious or not-agrees with the first premise, only the second premise is disputable. Those in favor of ESCR would not be so foolish as to argue that ESCR does not take the life of the embryo, so they typically take exception with embryo's humanity.

This tactic is bankrupt. The humanity of the unborn is not a religious doctrine, but a scientific fact demonstrable through any standard textbook on embryology. There is no question that the embryo has being; i.e. it exists. Something is there! Since every living thing is something when it comes into existence as a living thing, the only question we need to answer is What type of being does an embryo possess? Two scientific principles make the answer clear: genetics; law of biogenesis. We determine what kind of being something has by looking at its genetic code. The genetic fingerprint of an embryo is distinctly human; therefore, its being is necessarily human. The law of biogenesis is just as clear. This scientific law states that everything reproduces after its own kind. To determine what kind of a being the unborn is, then, we need only look at its parents. If the parents are human, the embryo is human. It is clear, then, that an embryo is a human being.

Scientifically speaking there is no question that life begins at conception, and that it is human. Embryos do not become human; they already are human. "It is an immature human, but a human being nonetheless. Living things do not become entirely different creatures in the process of changing their form. Rather, they develop according to a certain physical pattern precisely because of the kind of being they already are."5

In summary, Christian opposition to ESCR is rooted in the moral logic of the pro-life position.6 Abortion and ESCR both destroy the same thing, but at different stages of development.7

What Gives Humans Value?

What gives human beings their value? There are only two possibilities: (1) humans have value in light of their shared humanity; (2) humans have value when they can exemplify some additional requirement/trait. Those who define value in functional terms typically make rationality or consciousness the criterion for human value. Seeing that the unborn exhibit neither they do not qualify and can be killed at will.

All functional definitions of human value suffer from the same fatal flaw: authority. Who gets to determine which functions one must exhibit to be valued as a human being? The problem of authority is tied to a second problem: subjectivity. How do we determine which functions are value-defining and which ones are not? Functionalists cannot agree among themselves on this critical issue. A problem of subjectivity is tied to yet a third critical problem: functionally-defined value has no room for inalienable human rights. As Greg Koukl noted, "Whatever can be functionally defined, can be functionally defined away."8

The fact of the matter is that there are only four differences between the unborn and the born, none of which are morally relevant:

1. Size--Men are typically bigger than women, but does this fact give men the right to kill women? Shaquille O'Neil is bigger than me, but that does not make him more human, or give him more value.
2. Level of Development--Four year olds are less developed than 20 year olds, but we recognize both to be equally valuable.
3. Location--Why does where you are have anything to do with what you are? How does traveling down an 8" birth canal give someone value?
4. Degree of Dependency--Are people on insulin, or the elderly of less value than a healthy 20 year old because the latter is less dependent? Newborns are entirely dependent on their mother. Does this mean they have no value?9

The differences between an embryo and a newborn are morally insignificant, and thus there is no justification to treat one with respect and value their life, while killing the other for their spare parts. ESCR is just one more form of discrimination. As Scott Klusendorf noted, "We used to discriminate on the basis of skin color and gender. Now, with ESCR, we discriminate on the basis of size, level of development, and intelligence. We've simply swapped one form of discrimination for another."10

So I'm sorry Mr. Reagan, but this is not a choice "between the future and the past, between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology." This is a choice between protecting innocent human beings or allowing them to be killed in the name of gene therapy. I'm sorry Mr. Kerry, but President Bush has not turned "his back on science," nor has he "sacrifice[d] science for extreme right-wing ideology." He has upheld science in affirming that embryos are full members of the human race, possessing intrinsic value, and as such are deserving of our protection.

Bad Moral Logic

I find it interesting that most people agree killing an adult to harvest their organs for someone else's benefit is wrong, and yet so many think nothing of killing an embryo to harvest its parts for someone else's benefit. The only explanation for such schizophrenic moral reasoning is that they are convinced one is a human, while the other is not. But if the unborn are fully human from conception, then both the unborn and the born should be treated with the same respect given all valuable human beings.

People argue that we should use ESCR because it holds the potential to save people's lives, but they often fail to recognize that we must destroy the lives of thousands of tiny human beings to develop the life-saving technologies. Are we justified in taking the life of innocent human beings to bring benefit to others? "No, we do not sacrifice human beings for medical purposes regardless of the good it might bring others."11 "We believe human beings are special, the kind of beings that ought not be owned or manufactured for our benefit."12 ESCR treats the human embryo as a means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves. Using human beings for their spare parts transforms human life into a commodity to be used by man. This is dehumanizing-an objectification of humanity.13 While the motives behind ESCR may be good (find cures), the means are evil and must be opposed by all those who value human beings for the kind of beings they are--not the things they can do, nor the benefit they bring to others.


My treatment of this topic would not be complete without addressing some of the most common objections to our position:

O: "They are going to die anyway."
A: This is specious reasoning. The fact of the matter is that we are all going to "die anyway." Do those of us who are going to die later have the right to kill (and exploit) those who will die sooner? Is sooner rather than later (time) morally relevant? Do embryos cease to be human, and cease to have rights and dignity simply because their death may be more immanent than our own? Even if an individual's death is imminent, we still do not have a license to use him for lethal experiments. We cannot, for example, conduct experiments upon death-row prisoners or harvest their organs without their consent. Nor can we extract body parts from mortally wounded soldiers while they are dying on the battlefield.

As Patrick Lee and Robert George commented, "From the moral viewpoint, the certainty of death-whether in ninety years or nine minutes-does not alter our inherent dignity or relieve others of the obligation to respect our lives. That someone will soon die, no matter what we do, is never a license for killing him. That the human being whose death is imminent happens to be at an earlier rather than later stage of development is morally irrelevant."14

O: "While we should not create embryos for experimentation and destruction (research embryos), we should be able to use 'spare embryos' left over from infertility clinics. After all, they are just sitting in freezers and will probably die anyway."
A: This distinction is morally incoherent and practically unworkable. Value is not determined by the location, or even the ultimate destiny of the embryos. The value of the embryo is found in what it is: a member (albeit immature) of the human race. If there were a bunch of two-year-old orphans nobody wanted to adopt, could they be killed? The fact that they are more developed than embryos is irrelevant to the moral question. Clearly both are human beings. If it's the potentially imminent death of the embryos that makes them invaluable, then were infants waiting to be slaughtered by the Nazis not valuable as humans? Are those with terminally ill diseases worth less than healthy individuals their same age simply because the latter will live longer than the former?

Yes, many "leftover" embryos sitting in freezers are going to die due to the moral irresponsibility of the IVF clinics that created them, but they should be allowed to die in the same dignified manner we let all people die: naturally. If we would not experiment on adults whose death is imminent, then neither should we experiment on young humans whose deaths are imminent.

O: Embryos in a Petri dish do not have the same moral value as embryos in utero because the latter can develop on their own whereas the former cannot.
A: This argument mistakes the possession of capacities with the actualization of those capacities. The environment only affects the latter, not the former.

It also assumes that where one is determines what one is. Since when does physical location confer moral worth?

Thirdly, the researcher is the one responsible for placing the embryo in an environment in which it cannot sustain itself (a Petri dish) rather than in an environment in which it can (a womb). How can the researcher put the embryo in an environment which s/he knows will prevent it from developing on its own, and then claim that because it cannot sustain its developmental trajectory in this unnatural and life-inhibiting environment it has no moral significance? This claim would be just as preposterous as putting a human being into the environment of outer space, and then claiming that since he cannot continue to survive in that environment he has no moral significance. Not only does the change in location not deprive him of his moral value, but the individual responsible for putting him in that developmentally-stunting location-the supposed robber of moral value-is the same individual who claims this location deprives them of moral value. This begs the question. According to this line of reasoning all that is necessary to conduct lethal experiments on human beings is arbitrarily declare certain locations to be value-depriving, and then put individuals into such locations. If that is so, why not arbitrarily declare prison cells to be value-depriving locations and kill the inmates who inhabit those cells? If we cannot do so with prisoners, we cannot do so with embryos.

Furthermore, artificial wombs are currently being developed and tested. Technology permitting, we will be able to gestate an embryo to full term in a lab in the near future. Are you prepared to argue that the human baby born from an artificial womb is less valuable than a baby born from a woman's uterus simply because of his location? That is counter-intuitive.

O: "Embryos are not in and of themselves human beings."
A: This statement is scientifically ignorant. Standard embryology textbooks affirm the fact that embryos are human beings.

O: "No fetus is created by cloning embryos."
A: True. Cloning no more creates a fetus than it does a three year old. A fetus is not a "thing." Both "fetus" and "embryo" are particular stages of development of a human being, just like "newborn," "adolescent," and "adult." The fetus stage begins at 8 weeks. To say no fetus is created by cloning an embryo, then, is to say that cloning cannot create a human being that is 8 weeks old at the time of its creation. Of course! It takes 8 weeks for a cloned embryo to be 8 weeks old! By definition of the terms, then, the only thing cloning can do is create an embryo. It is a red herring to make the claim that cloning does not create a fetus.

O: "Opponents of ESCR are motivated by religious theology, not science. The theology of a few should not dictate the well-being of the many."15
A: While this is a convenient way to dismiss the argument of your opponents, it is not true. While one's position on the morality of ESCR may coincide with their religious convictions, the issue is not decided by such convictions. Opposition to ESCR comes from all sorts of ideological camps including atheists, agnostics, and pro-choice feminists. Liberal nations such as France, Germany, Norway, and Canada have even banned cloning.

O: "Approximately 45-50% of embryos die prior to implantation, and yet nobody holds a funeral for them because they recognize that they are not persons."
A: First, we never know when this happens so it is hard to mourn an event you are not aware of. Secondly, many of these miscarriages are due to incomplete or defective fertilizations, and thus what dies never rose to the level of a human embryo. Thirdly, the way we feel about the death of living thing is not what gives it value, or takes value away from it. If I fail to mourn the death of my own five year old child, does that fact mean that he was not a person? "It proves nothing to argue that a class of human individuals are not persons because others fail to treat them as persons, and to argue this precisely in a debate where one's opponents are in fact urging their readers to treat them as persons. The analogy cannot be avoided: It is like arguing against abolitionists that slaves are not persons because others fail to treat them as persons."16 The infant mortality rate just a century ago was higher than 45%. Does this mean infants have no value? "The high infant-mortality rates that characterized societies for most of human history provide no legitimate ground for denying the status of infants as human beings. By precisely the same token, high rates of early miscarriage do nothing to disprove the humanity of embryonic human beings."17

O: "An embryo is just a clump of cells."
A: So are adults. They just happen to be a bigger and more complicated clump. The fact remains that at the one-cell stage it has all the properties it needs to mature according to its kind.

An embryo differs from a clump of cells in that an embryo is a whole, "self-integrating organism capable of directing its own maturation as a member of the human species," while a "clump" of cells are merely parts of a larger whole, unitary organism. Embryos are distinct, living human beings at an early stage of development, not a clump of cells.18

"The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. … What does the nature of death tell us about the beginning of human life? From the earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms. Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells. … Embryos are in full possession of the very characteristic that distinguishes a living human being from a dead one: the ability of all cells in the body to function together as an organism, with all parts acting in an integrated manner for the continued life and health of the body as a whole. Linking human status to the nature of developing embryos is neither subjective nor open to personal opinion. Human embryos are living human beings precisely because they possess the single defining feature of human life that is lost in the moment of death-the ability to function as a coordinated organism rather than merely as a group of living human cells."19

O: "If an embryo is a 'person,' then so is every cell in your body, because with the proper culturing every somatic cell can develop into another human being. The fact of the matter is that every human cell is a potential person because every human cell contains the full genetic code (DNA)."
A: This argument commits two fallacies: confusing wholes and parts; confusing potentiality with actuality.

An embryo is a person because it is a unitary whole; a "self-integrating organism capable of directing its own maturation as a member of the human species."20 Somatic cells, however, are mere parts of a larger whole, unitary organism. Embryos will actively develop themselves into a mature human being if provided the proper environment to do so, whereas somatic cells can only replicate themselves for the survival of the larger organism to which they belong.

While both somatic cells and embryos have potentiality, only somatic cells can rightly be called "potential persons." An embryo already is a human person with the potentiality to mature according to its kind. For a somatic cell to become a human person (activating its potential to be a distinct human being) requires a new environment (being inserted into an enucleated egg).

The presence of human DNA, while sufficient to demonstrate that an entity is human, is not sufficient to demonstrate that it is an individual human being. Human value is not derived from the mere presence of human DNA in a cell, but to the unitary organism itself to which the cell belongs (that is why we recognize that a blood cell in a petri dish, while human, is not an individual human being). We know something is an individual human being because it has an intrinsic ability to direct its own activity/development towards maturation. Somatic cells do not have this ability, so while they are human, they are not individual human beings, and do not possess the same moral quality as somatic cells. While somatic cells and embryos both contain DNA, the latter is qualitatively different from somatic cells because it already is an individual human being, while the other is not.

As Dianne Irving wrote, "There is quite a difference, scientifically, between parts of a human being that only possess 'human life' and a human embryo or human fetus that is an actual 'human being.'… A human kidney or liver, a human skin cell, a sperm or an oocyte all possess human LIFE, but they are not human BEINGS - they are only parts of a human being. If a single sperm or a single oocyte were implanted into a woman's uterus, they would simply rot."21


We already declared the unborn to be disposable when we legalized abortion, have begun to declare that the elderly sick are disposable when Oregon legalized euthanasia, and have already begun to create human beings for the sole purpose of their destruction. How did we get to this place? We are where we are because we have declared that there is life unworthy of life; that one's size and location makes them morally insignificant; that human value is based on function rather than essence. Whose value will be taken away next? Where does it end?

It ends when the Christian majority stands up for their values in the public square, defending the life of the unborn with good science, good theology, and good character. It ends when we can successfully bring this society back to the understanding that human value is intrinsic, rooted in the kind of beings they are; not extrinsic, being instrumental or functional in nature.22 "All living human beings, irrespective of age, size, physical or mental ability, condition of dependency, or stage of development are owed respect; none may legitimately be enslaved or in any other way relegated to the status of a mere means to others' ends."23


Related Articles:

Charles Krauthammer's Embryonic Nonsense
Senate Leader Bill Frist's Pro-Life Confusion


1. Ronald Bailey, "Are Stem Cells Babies?"; available from http://reason.com/rb/rb071101.shtml; Internet; accessed 30 September 2004.
2. Deborah Josefson, "Adult Stem Cells May be Redefinable," British Medical Journal, January 30 1999.
3. Dr. David Prentice, "The Real Promise of Stem Cell Research"; available from http://www.thecbc.org/redesigned/research_display.php?id=124; Internet, accessed 02 October 2004.
4. Steve Wagner, "In Vitro Fertilization: Is it Wrong to Discard Embryos?"; available from http://www.str.org/free/bioethics/IVF_discard.pdf; Internet, accessed 30 September 2004.
5. Scott Klusendorf, "Letter to President Bush Opposing Stem Cell Research"; available from http://www.str.org/free/bioethics/stem_cell_letter.htm; Internet, accessed 12 November 2003.
6. This is not to say that only pro-life people oppose ESCR. Opposition to ESCR comes from both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and even pro-choice feminists. The abortion issue is not connected with ESCR at all because the legality of abortion is based on the woman's forced involvement with gestation. In the case of ESCR there is no woman involved.
7. Greg Koukl, "The Confusing Moral Logic of ESCR," Solid Ground, September/October 2004, p. 1.
8. Greg Koukl, "The Embryonic Stem Cell Research Debate," Solid Ground, September/October 2001, p. 2.
9. These four differences are from Scott Klusendorf, "Back-to-School Survival Guide"; available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/life/backtosc.htm; Internet, accessed 24 October 2002.
10. Scott Klusendorf, "Embryo Stem-Cell Research Help"; available from http://www.str.org/free/town_square/escrhelp.htm; Internet, accessed 25 September 2004.
11. Greg Koukl, "The Confusing Moral Logic of ESCR", p. 4.
12. Steve Wagner, "In Vitro Fertilization: Is it Wrong to Discard Embryos?"; available from http://www.str.org/free/bioethics/IVF_discard.pdf; Internet, accessed 30 September 2004.
13. Wesley J. Smith, "The Proposition 71 Stem Cell Scam: The Biotech Lobby Is Attempting to Buy a Law in California"; available from http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2167; Internet, accessed 13 October 2004.
14. Patrick Lee and Robert George, "Acorns and Embryos"; available from http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/7/georgelee.htm; Internet, accessed 12 May 2005.
15. An example of this is found in Ronald Bailey's statement in his article, "My Critics Are Wrong: Why Using Human Embryonic Stem Cells for Medical Research is Moral": "I know full well whom those readers who accept that God through his anointed representatives has told them that embryos are babies will believe. At the risk of being presumptuous, I still hope that the light that science sheds on this issue will lead faith communities to come to a different understanding one day. In the meantime, I hope that other readers not so persuaded by their faith will find my arguments enlightening and useful." (http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-bailey072501.shtml) Not only is he being condescending toward those with religious convictions on this issue, but is implying that the source of opposition to ESCR is religious, rather than scientific/philosophic in nature. He must deal with the case we are presenting, not the case he wishes we would present ("the Bible says").
16. Patrick Lee and Robert George, "Cellular Truths: The Debate Continues"; available from http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-leeprint091001.html; Internet, accessed 30 September 2004.
17. Ibid.
18. Patrick Lee and Robert George, "Reason, Science, and Stem Cells"; available from http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-george072001.shtml; Internet, accessed 30 September 2004.
19. Maureen Condic, "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End"; available from http://firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0305/articles/condic.html; Internet; accessed 12 May 2005.
20. Patrick Lee and Robert George, "Reason, Science, and Stem Cells"; available from http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-george072001.shtml; Internet; accessed 30 September 2004.
21. Diane Irving, "When Do Human Beings Begin?: 'Scientific' Myths and Scientific Facts"; available from http://www.all.org/abac/dni003.htm; Internet; accessed 09 February 2005.
22. Patrick Lee and Robert George, "Cellular Truths: The Debate Continues."
23. Ibid.

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