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Meta: Embryonic stem cells are pulled from human embryos that are left over from in-vitro fertilization clinics. Is this morally right? What are stem cell ethics? we try and get to the root of the issue in easy to read write-up.  

Right vs Wrong: The Moral Dilemma of Stem Cell Ethics

Our health and the health of our families and friends are of utmost importance. When someone in our lives has a health scare, what are the options? What are stem cells? What are the controversies surrounding them, and what are stem cell ethics?

We try our best to break down the complicated matter of stem cell ethics so that you can have a better understanding to make up your mind. There’s so much to know about stem cells that it can get a little complex without someone there to break it down.

When thinking about the ethics behind stem cell research, we must first know what stem cells are and are not. We must know what the laws are for collection. And finally, we must come to understand that there is no clear cut answer.

The basics of stem cells and the ethical debate

Stem cells are groups of unspecialized cells that generate all specialized cells. Specialized cells are cells that belong to a specific organ or tissue.

Stem cell research and its usage in practical medicine are still evolving. It has taken decades of research to discover ways in which we can use stem cells, and of course, there remains much controversy around the morality of using such cells.

Some of the controversies around the subject seem to based on misinformation or certain religious beliefs. In order to study and access the benefits of stem cells, scientists need to gather them in “ethical” ways.

It’s easy to get caught up in the broad generalizations in this matter. Upon hearing that stem cells are derived from embryos, people get upset. They see the word embryo, and their first thought is “fetus.”

An embryo, or rather the blastocysts that stem cells are derived from are not implanted or growing in a woman’s womb. The cells themselves are a cluster of 180 - 200 cells, growing in a petri dish.

But, before we can even discuss how to gather these stem cells, we need to cover the basics.

Types of Stem Cells:


  • Embryonic Stem Cells:  are cells collected from embryos. They are unique because once collected, they can become any type of specialized cell, though they are unspecialized.


  • Adult Stem Cells: are cells that have no specific function but are surrounded by cells that have specific functions. These cells exist solely to heal and maintain the tissue or organ in which they’re found.


Adult and Embryonic Stem Cells

Though they share many similarities, embryonic stem cells may be much more useful in treatment and research. Embryonic stem cells have the unique ability to create and multiply any type of tissue or organ cell.

However, in current medical procedure, adult stem cells are the only type of stem cell implemented. They have not yet discovered a use for embryonic cells, although their potential is quite incredible.

That is to say; if you are looking to create brain tissue cells, you would either need brain tissue stem cells from an adult or embryonic stem cells because the embryonic stem cells can make any type of specialized cell. (Keeping in mind that this would be done in a laboratory setting.)

Adult stem cells are also able to multiply. However, they do not produce as many specialized cells as embryonic stem cells do. Adult stem cells only make cells that are from the same tissue or organ where the stem cells were collected.

Stem Cells Three General Properties:

  • They are capable of dividing and renewing themselves
  • Are unspecialized
  • Can give rise to specialized cells


The need for stem cell research

Stem cells have much to teach us about complex events that happen during human conception. Scientists are still trying to understand how embryonic stem cells become specialized cells. This research could be fundamental in treating different diseases.

It’s thought that because cancer and congenital disabilities are due to abnormal cell division, a clear understanding of stem cells could give us invaluable information about how to treat such diseases or defects.

Because of their ability to regenerate and reproduce any type of specialized cell, scientists believe we will be able to help cure a plethora of diseases. Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis are some of the diseases that stem cells hope to treat.

There’s still so much to learn about what these cells can cure, about in what ways they can provide life-saving therapies and treatments.

So, yes, there is undoubtedly a need to keep researching if we want to see what is possible with stem cells. The regenerative properties and abilities to multiply specialized cells are too unique and too valuable an opportunity to give up.  

Stem cells in practical medicine

The study of stem cells has been around since the 1950s when they were discovered and used in the treatment of leukemia. But even preceding this event, there was discussion of stem cells in scientific papers. This text from the 1930’s is one of the first to mention the term “stem cell.”

Doctors are still finding additional ways to use stem cells to repair tissue. Right now, they use blood stem cells as a means of restoring the blood system after certain kinds of cancer treatments.

In the 1980’s it was discovered that it is possible to use skin stem cells in aid of making skin grafts for significant, large burns.

And finally, Europe has recently given the go ahead to market a new procedure that uses stem cells to repair the cornea ( which is the surface of the eye.)

Research into stem cells is ongoing and shows promise to change medicine radically.  

Ethical collection of embryonic stem cells

Because stem cells are often derived from embryos, there is a great moral debate on their usage. This has created several different kinds of laws, depending on your country of origin. Today, we’re mostly talking about United States policy, unless otherwise noted.

In the US, the laws are as such:

  • The embryo used to create a line of stem cells must be superfluous after an in-vitro fertilization procedure.
  • The donors of these embryos must be fully informed of all of their options*, and give full consent to have these cells used for stem cell research.
  • Donors are unpaid, unmolested, or otherwise un-“nudged” toward donating.

* Options include donating the embryo to another couple that wants a baby.

Whether this is ethical to your belief system is a matter of personal reflection.

The Ethical Debate

Since we’ve discussed the scientific side of stem cells, let's take a moment to talk about the moralistic side of the debate.

Religious views have been important to the ethical debate regarding stem cell research. By looking at these views we get an extensive collection of opinions from not only the United States but also into the rest of the world.

Of course, many different countries have their own regulatory standards and ethics written into law, and many of these may not follow religious law. We can only give you the facts, and so here’s a quick rundown of what some religions believe in regards to stem cells.

Religious views on embryonic stem cells

The Catholic faith is not opposed to stem cell research, necessarily. Although they are not moralistically opposed to adult stem cell collection, collection from the placenta, or after a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), they are vehemently opposed to the destruction of an embryo no matter the likelihood of its survival.


So, the Catholic church is against embryonic stem cell research, unless collected through a miscarriage.

Going into bible verses, you may find this:  

(Job 31:13-15; Ps. 51:5; 139:13-16; Matt. 1:20). The Bible is also clear about the taking of innocent life (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). For these reasons, Christians should not support medical research that requires killing innocent human beings at the earliest stage of their development.

However, not all Christians agree with these thoughts, and many are supporters of embryonic stem cell research.

The Episcopal religion is one of the Christian denominations that has not been shy about their support of embryonic stem cell research. They find that the ethical limitations used in gathering stem cells are enough to make it worthwhile.

Many religions haven’t come out as expressly for or against embryonic cell usage. We can look at different religious texts to make an educated guess, but keep in mind that not all followers of different religions have the same ethical values.

There’s a great write up of more religious views on stem cell research here.

In the Islamic religion, an embryo would not yet have a soul, and so many are unopposed to ethical embryonic stem cell research.

All major Jewish denominations have come out in support of stem cell research and treatment as long as these cells are collected ethically.

In Hinduism, it is believed that life begins at conception. However, there has been no official stance.

Buddhists have had no clear cut stance on the subject due to there being many schools of thought on the matter. Some think the pursuit of knowledge and medicine designed to help end human suffering is enough reason to support stem cell research. Others feel that the Buddhist tenet of not harming others is not in alignment with embryonic stem cell usage.

Even people with no particular religious belief have expressed concern over the use of embryonic stem cells.



We don’t yet know what the benefits of embryonic stem cell research are.

In fact, new research has found ways to guide adult stem cells into becoming embryonic cells. This discovery, made in the ’00s may be the way out of the ethical debate and into a new world of medical breakthroughs.

We need to keep funding stem cell research. Adult stem cells, in particular, are already being utilized in modern medicine, with bone marrow transplants being one of the most common and the longest running uses of stem cells.

What we know about embryonic stem cells is that they can be challenging to work with. Research and study of them are abundant, but there has yet to be any practical use of these types of cells. Researchers still believe in the validity of researching more, learning more about what makes embryonic stem cells so amazing.

What makes stem cells capable of change and repopulation? In these tiny, barely visible cells there holds an entire universe of possibility. But we need to ask ourselves, is it worth it? Is an embryo a life? Or, is it merely just a grouping of cells? When do these cells become a fetus or a living soul?

Of course, these are questions we can not answer fully answer for you. It takes deep thought and careful consideration of the facts in order to make form an opinion. The potential of turning adult stem cells into embryonic-type cells seems to be the way of the future. We may no longer need to debate the ethic of this new procedure.

In the United States, we have some of the more relaxed laws on the subject. The possibility of curing diseases that plague our world is too important to let slip by.

Stem cell research has been ongoing since the 1950s and is only ramping up as our populations are able to live longer and longer. We want to know more about how human beings are made; we want to know more about how to cure diseases; we want to know what makes us healthy or what makes us sick. Stem cells are some of the building blocks that create living organisms. They have so much to teach us, and we’re excited to see the ongoing research.