Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the Commodification of Human Life

The ethical controversy surrounding human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) arises from one fact: the research requires the destruction of a living human embryo in order to acquire the stem cells. That the human embryo is a human life is agreed upon by all sides. Indeed, if the human embryo were not a human life, and recognized as such, the research would be ethically non-contentious.

Proponents of the research base their support for it on a utilitarian proposition: the benefits such research may produce in treating numerous diseases and conditions – diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and Parkinson’s are among the most frequently cited – outweighs and justifies the necessary destruction of the embryo. The embryo is here recognized as a “form” of human life that is worthy of “respect” and the ethical concerns to which its destruction give rise are acknowledged. Nonetheless, this form of human life does not rise to a level that would require its protection whatever the potential benefits that might result from its destruction.

This outlook on embryo-destructive research was enshrined in the conditions first laid out for publicly funding such research in the United States. In its final report before he left office, President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Committee first recommended federal funding for hESCR. But it did so conditionally: “In our judgment, the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research…The claim that there are alternatives to using stem cells derived from embryos is not, at the present time, supported scientifically. We recognize, however, that this is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances.”[1]

That is, the research admittedly is “morally problematic” — precisely because it requires destroying a human life. However, the destruction of human life at the embryonic stage is justifiable because the value of that life is outweighed by the research’s potential benefits. Thus, proponents of the research begin with the possibility of therapeutic benefits to make the fact of human embryonic life conditional and therefore of lesser value than other human life.

Opponents of the research, on the other hand, begin with the fact that the human embryo, from a purely scientific perspective, is unconditionally a human life, as attested by every standard textbook on embryology. The human embryo at conception is a fully integrated, genetically unique self-directed human life that can only develop into a more mature member of the species Homo sapiens and no other. Thus, as a unique human life it has an inherent dignity and therefore cannot be used as a means to another person’s ends — much less another person’s merely potential ends — however nobly those ends are cast. In this view, human life cannot be used or manipulated to become a condition for the good of another human life.

Many who take this position, though not all, ground this inherent human dignity in the belief that the human being is created by God and possesses an eternal soul, and this dignity of the individual is thus inviolate from those who would use others as means to their own ends. Theological perspectives are legitimate and have a necessary place in considering issues of bioethics. But in addition, there are nonsectarian grounds for rejecting destructive human embryonic stem cell research, as such research represents the commodification and commercialization of human life.

Throughout the public policy debate in the United States, the main point of contention has been government funding of destructive hESCR (contrary to widespread belief, such research was never “banned” in the United States; the private sector was always free to pursue it and public funding at the state level was always at the discretion of the states.) The main public policy debate in the United States was whether the federal government, as a matter of national policy, should endorse embryo research by funding such ethically contentious research.) Senator Sam Brownback, a leading opponent of federal funding for hESCR, would raise the question of whether the human embryo was a person or “property.” From a non-sectarian standpoint, this is a crucial question in confronting the ethics of hESCR. If human life is viewed as property, than it becomes a mere commodity to be exploited for whatever purposes one deems worthy (and worthy can be as mundane as desiring smoother skin, as some cosmetic companies now boast the use of fetal cells in their preparations). This commodification and commercialization of some human life has the very real potential to degrade and diminish our sense of the inherent value of the human individual throughout all of society. For example, the pursuit of hESCR has been closely related to human cloning in order to produce embryos for stem cells theoretically genetically matched to patients. Creating and destroying a human embryo is one form of commodification of human life to produce a potential medical product. But human cloning requires human eggs, thus raising the very real specter of some women “donors” – almost certainly lower-income and disadvantaged women – being exploited as producers of a needed commodity, just as in some areas of the world the poor are exploited as “donors” of organs.

Nor are there any guarantees that such commodification will remain limited to embryonic life at seven days or less after conception (the time at which embryonic stem cells are usually harvested). This is because while science may be competent to tell us what we are able to do, and the most efficient way to do it, it not within the competence of science to tell us what we should or should not do. Science is a method for obtaining a specific form of knowledge about the natural world, a way of observing and learning about the physical properties of the natural world. When it comes to questions of value it is inherently neutral. Value judgments as to which avenues of medical research should or should not be pursued must come from disciplines outside of science. For example we may find that tissue taken from embryos beyond the seven-day point have greater therapeutic potential than embryonic stem cells. If that is the case, why not grow the embryo to 14 days, or 21 days, or even beyond, if from a purely scientific viewpoint that is the most efficient way to obtain the tissue most promising for treating disease? Most of us would cringe at this scenario –not because of scientific reasons, but rather for ethical ones.

We have already witnessed the chilling results when some human life comes to be seen as a scientific commodity useful for conducting experiments. Researchers conducting the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (begun in 1932) believed they were acting on a sound scientific basis when they refused African-American men with syphilis the standard treatment, which then was risky and of questionable value. But they continued to deny treatment even after penicillin proved available and beneficial for syphilis patients, and they did so because of the scientific knowledge they believed they could gain from observing the disease’s progression. Again, while it may have been scientifically sound for the Tuskegee researchers to carry on their study this way, we now have laws against such research because we understand it to be ethically unsound.

One final point brings us back to the condition laid down by the NBAC for conducting hESCR: that it should be pursued only if there were no less morally problematic alternatives to achieve the research goals – those goals being the curing or alleviating of various diseases and conditions. Of course, opponents of the research reject any scenario for destroying human life, however noble the stated goal. But of those who would agree to such a condition, the question goes begging: is it ethically acceptable to continue such research if such ethically non-contentious alternatives are discovered? In terms of actually providing therapeutic benefits to patients, the “advance of science” shows adult stem cells to be far more efficacious than embryonic. To date, adult stem cells have provided therapeutic benefits to patients for some 73 diseases and conditions, while embryonic stem cells provide none.[2] And the discovery of the method to produce “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSCs) from ordinary somatic cells has given researchers an easily obtainable and virtually inexhaustible supply of fully pluripotent, embryonic-like stem cells to work with without having to destroy embryos or resort to human cloning.[3] We would argue that in light of these developments, and with these ethically non-contentious alternatives readily available, it is unethical for proponents to continue hESCR. In continuing to do so, and in devising other rationales for the research, proponents of hESCR are providing an apt illustration of how easily, once one set of ethical boundaries on scientific research are reasoned away, others soon follow.

[1] Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, National Bioethics Advisory Commission, September, 1999, p. 55

[2] Prentice DA and Tarne G, Adult versus embryonic stem cells: Treatments. Science 316, 1422-1423, 2007; also see for a list of sample references.

[3] Takahashi K et al., Induction of pluripotent stem cells from adult human fibroblasts by defined factors, Cell 131, 861-872, 2007; Yu J et al., Induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from human somatic cells, Science 318, 1917-1920, 2007