An Immoral Proposal: A Case Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Part 1)

Human embryonic stem cells.

In the eighteenth century, an Irish minister by the name of Jonathan Swift wrote a powerful satire, entitled, “A Modest Proposal.” In the most serious language, Swift suggested that Irish babies be sold for food, and that their skin be used as a kind of soft leather. As a result, there would be fewer mouths to feed, more food to go around, and a new industry that would create many jobs. This was his ‘modest’ proposal. In reality, Swift did not intend what he was recommending. Actually, he was attacking a common philosophy of the day, called “utilitarianism.” This philosophy taught that “the ends justify the means.” A moral act can be justified if gives the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. Swift’s purpose in offering a ‘modest’ proposal was to show people just how far utilitarian philosophy would lead them if they followed it through to its logical conclusion.

Swift’s modest proposal was not carried out in his day. You and I, however, are faced with a very similar proposal today in our own country. Only in our case, it’s not satire. On July 11th, 2001, representatives for the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine of Norfolk, Virginia, announced that they are intentionally creating human embryos with the express purpose of destroying those embryos and extracting their stem cells. Their goal is to develop these stem cells into therapeutic cures for human diseases, and then to market these cures. According to their ethics committee, “The creation of human embryos for research purposes was justifiable [since] it was our duty to provide humankind with the best understanding of early human development.”1 This is only one among hundreds of companies that are engaged in this kind of research.

Perhaps the most shocking thing of all has been the response of the American public. Swift’s generation was shocked at his proposal. But for many Americans today, the killing of human embryos not only seems reasonable but even desirable. A recent poll indicated that at least two-thirds of the American public supports this kind of research. In light of this real proposal facing our society, I would like to address the subject of embryonic stem cell research.2

A Case Against Embryonic Stem Cell Research

On April 6, 2001, President Bush promised not to support embryonic stem cell research and articulated his position as follows:

As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist. They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.

Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 lines has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures. This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.3

But in April and June of 2007, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed a bill (legislation S5) that would permit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. President Bush assured the congress and the American public that he would veto that bill, which he did. But the debate continued. And when Barack Obama assumed the office of president, he didn’t waste any time repealing the eight-year-old ban on embryonic stem cell research. On March 9, 2009, President Obama said at the signing ceremony in the White House, “We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research.” 4

The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ.” So too, I would not be faithful to Christ or to you if I purposely avoided such an important and relevant topic, especially as we’ll commemorate the infamous “Roe vs Wade” decision (January 22, 1973) that effectively legalized abortion in our country. Consequently, I’d like to argue that stem cell research that requires the destruction of a human embryo is an immoral proposal that we as Christians should oppose. I would like to develop our topic under three questions: What is embryonic stem cell research? Why are many people pushing for embryonic stem cell research? Why should we be opposed to embryonic stem cell research?

What Is Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

One reason why some Christians avoid discussing this issue is that they don’t know what it’s all about. For this reason, I’d like to begin by defining terms and explaining what is meant by “embryonic stem-cell research.”

What are “embryonic stem cells”?

Within a few hours after fertilization, a woman’s egg begins to divide into what are called stem cells. The first stage of stem cells is called totipotent, the second, pluripotent, and the third, multipotent. These stem cells are the generic, less-specialized cells that eventually give rise to the more specialized cells of the body, such as brain cells, blood cells, muscle cells, skin cells, etc. Furthermore, these stem cells are not just found in human embryos. Multipotent stem cells continue to be present within the body throughout human development. Therefore, scientists distinguish “embryonic stem cells” from what are called “adult stem cells,” which you and I have right now in our bodies.

What is “embryonic stem cell research”?

Scientists have developed techniques to extract these stem cells from the embryo. Once isolated from the embryo, these stem cells are able to reproduce indefinitely, making them an inexhaustible resource. Scientists are also working on techniques that will enable them to direct these stem cells to produce specific kind of tissue to help fight various diseases and disorders.

Where do the scientists obtain the embryos?

There are basically three sources:

Embryos from fertility clinics: these embryos were originally created by means of In Vitro Fertilization (i.e., fertilization in a test tube) for the purpose of reproduction. In this procedure, however, more embryos are created than are actually needed. Those not used are frozen for later use or discarded.

Embryos from contrived conception: sperm from a male and an egg from a female are purchased from consenting donors and then joined in the laboratory for the purpose of research.

Embryos from cloning: the nucleus from a female egg is removed, and it is replaced by the genetic information from the cells of a donor—perhaps the person who will receive the stem cells as treatment. An electrical current is then applied to the egg, which causes it to begin dividing into stem cells.

That’s a thumbnail sketch of embryonic stem cell research.

Why Are Many People Pushing for the Research?

For some (perhaps many), the goal of embryonic stem cell research is less than noble—they’re basically in it for the money. For others, however, the goal is a more noble one. Scientists hope to use these re-engineered stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, and a host of other human maladies. But the problem with this research is that it results in the destruction of a human embryo. When the stem cells are removed from the embryo, the embryo dies. It no longer has the potential of being born and enjoying life. Yet, many people are still pushing for this research! We need to ask ourselves, “Why is this the case?”

Utilitarian pragmatism

Utilitarian pragmatism is an ethical theory, which asserts “all moral, social, or political action should be directed toward achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (Webster’s II, s.v.). According to this theory, the destruction of a minority is justified if it will benefit a majority. Thus, the destruction of human embryos is warranted, because it holds the promise of helping countless thousands of people with diseases. I believe this is one of the driving forces behind embryonic stem cell research. In an article entitled, “The Cases For and Against Stem Cell Research,” Fox News writes, “Advocates of embryo research say that the potential medical benefits of the research outweigh moral concerns about the embryo.”5 Some even go further and say that the refusal to support such research is unethical and unmerciful. Before his death, the late actor Christopher Reeves, told Congress, “No obstacle should stand in the way of responsible investigation…. It is our responsibility to do everything possible to protect the quality of life of the present and future generations.”6

Emotional appeal

We must admit that those who argue for embryonic stem cell research seem to have emotional appeal on their side. That’s because it’s much more difficult to feel sympathy for a nameless, microscopic embryo than it is for a family member or friend who is suffering with a disease. Those who are in favor of embryonic stem cell research capitalize on this emotional appeal. For example, Anna Quindlen, a pro-abortion advocate, writes, “Some who believe that life begins at conception may look into the vacant eyes of an adored parent with Alzheimer’s or picture a paralyzed child walking again, and take a closer look at what an embryo really is.”7 Even pro-life Senator Orrin Hatch has given in to this appeal. Speaking to the New York Times, he says, “I just cannot equate a child living in the womb, with moving toes and fingers and a beating heart, with an embryo in a freezer.”8

Perhaps this explains why many pro-life advocates and professing Christians are supporting the research. According to recent polls, more than half of Roman Catholics and Protestants support embryonic stem cell research. One poll even alleged that 53% of those claiming to be ‘born-again’ Christians support the research. That leads me to my third question.

Notes

Photo: Nissim Benvenisty, Creative Commons.

1 Cited in “Scientists Use Embryos Made Only For Research” (July 11, 2001), Washington Post, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/07/11/scientists-us….

2 This article was written in 2007, but I still believe it is relevant to the question of who we treat and project the unborn. Some footnotes have been updated.

3 Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, George W. Bush (United States Government Printing Office, 2003), 2:957.

4 “Obama’s Remarks on Stem Cell Research” (March 9, 2009), New York Times, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/us/politics/09text-obama.html.

5 “The Cases For and Against Stem Cell Research,” (August 9, 2001), Fox News, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.foxnews.com/story/the-cases-for-and-against-stem-cell-research.

6 Stem Cell Research: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, One Hundred Sixth Congress, second session (United States Government Printing Office, 2001), 36, 38.

7 “A New Look, An Old Battle” (April 8, 2001), Newsweek, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/new-look-old-battle-150253.

8 “The Nation: Morality and Medicine; Reconsidering Embryo Research” (July 1, 2001), accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/01/weekinreview/the-nation-morality-and-….

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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There are 5 Comments

Steve Figard's picture

As a Ph.D. biochemist, I commend you for the clear presentation of what embryonic stem cells are and why they are used.  Well done.  I look forward to part two as you discuss your third question.

Bert Perry's picture

.....aren't they almost completely negative, to even actively harmful?  I visited the (admittedly not peer reviewed) wiki page, and there's a lot of "could be" and not much "is", as far as I can tell.  It's almost like Someone is trying to tell us we're not in control.

One question here; so when we're talking about embryonic stem cells, it's when it's just a few hundred cells or so, so these things really cannot be reasonably harvested from things like stillbirths, right?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Craig Toliver's picture

What are the implications of being against  Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

Is this leading to being anti-vax?

https://www.nebraskamed.com/COVID/you-asked-we-answered-do-the-covid-19-...

When it comes to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, fetal cell line HEK 293 was used during the research and development phase. All HEK 293 cells are descended from tissue taken from a 1973 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. Using fetal cell lines to test the effectiveness and safety of medications is common practice, because they provide a consistent and well-documented standard. 

For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, fetal cell lines were used in the production and manufacturing stage. To make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, scientists infect PER.C6 fetal cell lines to grow the adenovirus vector. All PER.C6 cells used to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are descended from tissue taken from a 1985 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. This cell line is used because it is a well-studied industry standard for safe and reliable production of viral vector vaccines.

Bob Gonzales's picture

Thank you Steve!

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