ESCR Debate, Part 2: The “Leftover” Embryo Argument

This is part 2 of the transcript of a debate on embryonic stem cell research that I am having on the Facebook group “Support Stem Cell Research.” I will be collating the comments in each part to focus on a specific argument, which means that some comments will be trimmed to only the pertinent sections, with other parts being addressed later in the series. The full discussion topic can be seen here, and there have also been some particularly nasty comments on the main wall of the board today that I may include in the future as well.

This part will focus on the argument that ESCR will primarily use frozen embryos left over from IVF procedures. Other people’s comments are indented and italicized to help distinguish who is speaking.

Tom wrote:
So you would have no problem with ESCr employing only leftover, unwanted, unused embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics, wouldn't you? These embryos are created en masse because the process of scraping the ovary is invasive and therefore potentially dangerous, as well as uncomfortable and costly; the process to create the embryos is also expensive, so the fewer times these procedures are repeated, the more likely they will result in a successful embryo formation and implantation. But that leaves over 600,000 embryos in freezers right now in America, 350,000 of which will be thrown in the trash to be incinerated as medical waste EVERY YEAR. Donated to ESC medical research, these would be absolutely invaluable towards saving and improving REAL, FEELING, human LIVES.

ESCr destroys no "life." It takes cells which have absolutely no potential future other than as incinerator fuel, and applies them to research into treatments for some of our most debilitating diseases today. Did you know that 60-80% of all naturally-fertilized embryos are rejected from a woman's body, by her own natural processes? Where is the authoritarian demonization of menstruation after coital sex?

Tom, the fact that there are 400,000 (I'm not sure where you got your 600,000 figure) frozen embryos doesn't mean that they are all available for embryonic stem cell research. The most accurate data collected by the RAND Institute states that only 11,000 embryos have been designated for research, from which at most only 275 viable stem cell lines can be generated. That will simply not be sufficient for the research necessary to find treatments using ESCs. Thus it is inevitable that pursuing ESCr will require the creation of new embryos specifically for the purpose of research.

Here is the link to the RAND Institute study:

Even if you consider one recent study that suggests (through survey results) that perhaps there will be up to 100,000 "leftover" embryos available for research, which may perhaps result in a "100-fold" increase in the potential number of stem cell lines (though the study doesn't describe why a 10x increase in embryos would result in a 100x increase in stem cell lines), this would result in at most 27,500 stem cell lines available. Considering that up to 100 million people can stand to benefit from treatments using stem cells, even this 27,500 number will be insufficient, and many more embryos will have to be created and destroyed if those treatments will come from ESCr.

On the other hand, scientists face no such limitation in the use of iPSC cells, since hundreds of iPSC lines can be generated from one skin biopsy, all of them exactly matched to the DNA of the patient.

Tom wrote:
"only 11,000 embryos have been designated for research, from which at most only 275 viable stem cell lines can be generated"

Not bad, since the ban on federal funding for embryonic research was just lifted three days ago.

"That will simply not be sufficient for the research necessary to find treatments using ESCs"

Based on what possible model?

"it is inevitable that pursuing ESCr will require the creation of new embryos specifically for the purpose of research"

I certainly don't have a problem with that, if it comes true. Those who do are welcome not to accept treatments derived from ESCr.

Apparently you didn't read the actual RAND report that determined these numbers. Otherwise you would have noticed that the report was published in 2003, and that the numbers of embryos available for research have no connection with Obama's order lifting the ban. You seem to imply that given more time more of these "leftover" embryos will be available for research, which is simply not true. The numbers that I cited are the maximum numbers of stem cell lines that can be generated from "leftover" embryos without the creation of new embryos specifically for research.

The reason that even 27,500 stem cell lines will not be enough if scientists want to actually use ESC for the treatment of diseases is because, like in organ transplantation, there must be tissue match between donor and recipient, otherwise the patient's own immune system will reject the transplanted tissue. Even 27,500 unique stem cell lines will not provide enough of a variety of tissue types to provide treatments for even a small percentage of the 100 million people that can stand to benefit from stem cells.

This means that SCNT (ie "therapeutic cloning") will be required when it comes time for doctors to actually try to treatment people, which will require the creation of embryos on a massive scale.

As you said, Tom, you don't have a problem with creating new life for the purpose of research, so my point won't mean anything to you. However, it's important for people to be aware that IVF embryos will ~not~ be the only ones used for ESC research.

Tom wrote:
A pregnancy miscarries. Do the parents have the right to donate that fetus to medical research, or should they pop it into a freezer until all of its cells are dead, so they can incinerate it?

Leftover IVF embryos have no uterus in which to gestate. They are only different from any miscarriage in that they were NEVER in a uterus in the first place, and never even had the potential of that fetus -- not that 'potential' is a rational argument for anything, considering that you and I are 'potential' corpses, yet nobody will argue for the treatment of living people AS corpses until that comes to pass.

The arguments against allowing the donation of waste IVF embryos to medical research are pathetic, self-serving and/or self-righteous, and academic: not only do over 2/3 of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research, but both the President and the super-majority of Congress do, too. Funding will be established within the year, and after the first ESCr-derived treatments become available, the bulk of the opposition will finally realize what idiots they have been -- just like the opponents of organ transplant did, decades ago, when their loved ones first benefited from organ transplants.

Within my lifetime, people will laugh derisively at the idea that anyone ever opposed embryonic stem cell research the same way they do at opposition to organ transplant, opposition to interracial marriage, and opposition to women's suffrage. (Heck, lots of us already do)

Tom wrote:
"The arguments against allowing the donation of waste IVF embryos to medical research are pathetic, self-serving and/or self-righteous, and academic..."

And your assertion is entirely unsupported. If the arguments are really so pathetic, then why haven't you actually responded to the points I made earlier showing that the number of unique stem cell lines that can be generated from "leftover" IVF embryos will not be sufficient to provide the range of tissue matches required to provide actual treatment to all the people who could potentially benefit from stem cell treatments. Thus your argument implying that only IVF embryos will be used in ESCR is misleading and purposefully draws attention away from the fact that the majority of ESCR will require the creation of new embryos specifically for research.

Tom wrote: “Because you didn't bother to support your statements, so I see no need to rebut. It is also utterly tangential to the question of whether or not research itself should be conducted on these bits of human waste byproduct.”

Which of my statements did I not support? All the figures that I cited, the 400,000 leftover IVF embryos, the 11,000 embryos actually designated for research, and the 275 maximum potential stem cell lines that can be derived from these IVF embryos, were all taken directly from the RAND Institute study conducted in 2003, which is currently the most accurate data available. I even gave you the link to that report, but let me include it again:

I've never seen you cite where you got your figure of 600,000 for the number of frozen IVF embryos, even though you have tossed that number around in a number of discussion topics.

Marianne wrote:
HOW MANY TIMES? There are embryos which are not being used, they're going to be incinerated. Why not use them to cessate the suffering of the LIVING - the very proposal you're making is that suffering is bad and life should be preserved, well these embryos have ZERO chance of life but there are real, living, breathing PEOPLE with diseases which might be curable if these embryos are used. It's a completely untenable position you hold.

Three times in this discussion I have cited the hard, empirical numbers that show that the maximum number of stem cell lines that may be derived from current "leftover" IVF embryos is 275. No one has yet refuted these numbers, nor has anyone provided any evidence that the stem cells derived from these "leftover" embryos will actually be the ones used to treat the 100 million people that can stand to benefit from stem cell treatments.

So until someone can show actual evidence that only these leftover embryos will actually be used to treat people, I will continue to state that it is misleading and deceptive to imply that treatments from ESC research will only come from IVF embryos. Your arguments supporting SCNT imply that you know very well that treatments utilizing embryonic stem cells will undoubtedly require the creation of new embryos through SCNT, rather than relying only on IVF embryos.



The “leftover” embryos argument is probably the most influential argument used by ESCR proponents, even having an effect on those who may in principle be opposed to the creation of new embryos specifically for research. The reason it is so influential is because it is a sad fact that the vast majority of the “leftover” embryos currently in storage will indeed simply be disposed of—a devastating tragedy in and of itself. So this argument preys on the desire to at least have this mass destruction of innocent life at least mean something positive by way of medical research for people currently living with crippling diseases.

But this is a misleading and deceptive argument, because the numbers show that these “leftover” embryos simply will not be sufficient when the time comes to try to develop actual treatments for patients using ESCR. My earlier entry on “The Slippery Slope of Embryonic Stem Cell Research” goes in depth into why this is the case.

In the debate, I repeatedly raised the hard numbers from the RAND Institute study indicating that only a maximum of 275 unique stem cell lines could be derived from the “leftover” IVF embryos. Neither of the people responding tried to refute those numbers, nor my claim that ESCR would inevitably require the creation of new embryos specifically for research, which has already been taking place in private labs around the world, and soon in federally funded labs in America. This is a conclusion that must be brought out whenever someone tries to use the “leftover embryos” argument.

So the tragic situation is that if ESCR is allowed to continue, not only will these IVF embryos be destroyed for no significant purpose, but it will actually prepare the way for an even greater acceptance of the use of humans in the earliest and most fragile state of development as simply a useful commodity.

The debate continues with Part 3: Dehumanizing the Embryo. Also see my earlier post on The Slippery Slope of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

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  1. Tom said...

    So your argument is that medical science should not be pursued because you see no possible benefit from the study of leftover embryos you admit do exist? Why is it preferable that any number of embryos be destroyed, rather than donated to the advancement of human biology? Why have you selectively evaded answering dozens of empirically-based questioned posed to you from biology students, instead focusing your attention on the 'credibility' of a layman supporter of medical research?

    Can you explain why a human being without a brain or heart or blood is "alive" when it is an embryo, yet "dead" at any other stage of development?

    Can you explain why parents of a stillborn, miscarried, or post-abortion embryo or fetus may donate the remains of their progeny to medical research, yet these same people should be denied that right if the embryo was never implanted nor began gestation in the first place?

  2. Kendalf said...

    Tom, I've posted a response to your comment in a new entry. Feel free to comment in that entry.

  3. Anonymous said...

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

  4. Kendalf said...

    Anon, thank you for your comment. I wish that more would agree, but unfortunately I think a large majority of people who have not seriously looked at the issues simply are not aware of the misinformation that is often presented in the media.

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