It is always interesting for me to teach my college course on Ethics, as we explore the many ethical “hot potato” issues that are a part of our current lives. One of the more controversial ones is the subject of embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic Stem Cells, also known as Pluripotent Stem Cells, offer amazing potential for regenerative therapies that can be applied to a myriad of illnesses and injuries that plague human life. Yet, as promising as these cells are, they can only be found by harvesting them from a living human embryo. This requires destroying the embryo, which raises all the ethical concerns. I have explored this subject in class, and have taken students to the research facilities of Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago where we have talked with leading stem cell researchers and have given students the rare opportunity of viewing living pluripotent stem cells under the microscope.
During the years of my teaching, I have always ended my lectures on Stem Cell Research by telling the students that one day, we will no longer need to go to existing embryos to find these pluripotent cells. One day, we will be able to combine other medical advances, such as cloning, to construct pluripotent stem cells without needing a traditional embryo. I leave them with a rhetorical question: When this becomes possible, will it remove all the ethical issues? Well, it’s time to put the rhetorical part of that question away. In this week’s headlines, the future has arrived!
As announced all over the news this week, an international team of researchers have successfully cloned human embryos, and have then harvested the stem cells from them. These cloned embryos were created by using cells from human skin. As USA Today states:
In a first, Mitalipov and his privately funded team report that these cloned embryos were grown past an eight-cell size (where earlier attempts had stopped) into a full-blown early embryo, containing hundreds of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic cells taken from these cloned embryos were grown into six colonies of cells, the first successfully grown cloned human embryonic stem cells.
When I get back to class next fall, I am going to need to update my class presentation! No longer do we need to destroy traditional embryos. Now we can manufacture our own embryos, and destroy them. Problem solved!
Or is it?
Somehow this achievement doesn’t seem to clear up the controversy. If anything, it raises even more ethical questions. Does a “natural” embryo have more moral status than a cloned one? Does life produced by natural procreation have more rights than life produced by cloning techniques? If we are comfortable cloning embryos to harvest their cells, does the same line of thinking lead to the eventuality of cloning human beings in order to harvest organs for “naturally born” humans?
As much as we would like to think that this achievement in cloning embryonic stem cells lessens ethical concern, in many ways, it broadens them. Now that we have proven that human life can be cloned, it is time to wrestle with the question: What is the moral and civic status of cloned human life? This is an important question that will involve scientists, religious leaders, philosophers, and legislators. And it is no longer a hypothetical question. Yes, researchers have found a way to clone embryonic stem cells. But in terms of the ethical questions, we have really jumped from the frying pan into the fire!