A Real Debate on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I inadvertently sparked a vigorous debate over embryonic stem cell research on one of the largest Facebook groups for stem cell research. It all started with an innocent comment I made to try to correct a misunderstanding that one wall poster had about stem cells. He commented that four years ago he was healed from a spinal injury by stem cells, but then he followed that with an epithet against the Republican party, a theme that is commonly repeated in this group by those who believe that Pres. George Bush’s policy restricting federal funds from being used to create new stem cell lines from embryos was the worst thing that could have happened to stem cell research. I simply made the comment that,

Since it was only this year that the FDA approved the first human trials using embryonic stem cells, the cure that you received was most likely the result of adult stem cells, which have never been restricted by any party in the government since there are no ethical qualms surrounding them. Your treatment thus serves as another example of the importance of focusing on ASCr [adult stem cell research] and the new iPSCs [induced Pluripotent Stem Cells] instead of on ESCr. You should be proclaiming the merits of adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells.

This comment drew a response from Tom, one of the most vocal members of this group, and when I responded to his comment, things kind of snowballed from there.

As a teacher, I believe that it is very important to help my students accurately see the various sides to an issue before drawing a conclusion, especially one as controversial as stem cell research. One of the best tools for helping my students gain this is by showing them a debate between two well versed representatives taking opposing sides on an issue. Now I’m not a biologist, nor a bioethicist, and I don’t know what the people that I’ve been debating with do, and I certainly wouldn’t count any of us as experts on the topic, but I believe that our discussion has hit many of the key arguments for and against embryonic stem cell research. So I thought that it might help others gain a deeper understanding of some of the issues involving stem cell research if I posted snippets from the ongoing debate, so that people could see the arguments and responses given by those who support and those who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

I would like to say that I’ve inspired others to join in the fight, but so far it’s primarily been just me against four of the most ardent supporters of embryonic stem cell research in the group. And even though the debate has only been going on for several days, it’s probably already too verbose for me to simply copy over verbatim, so I will be doing some selecting and trimming so as not to scare away my readers. But you can see the full, ongoing debate at this link, and you are certainly invited to join in!

Key to acronyms: ESCr = “embryonic stem cell research”; ASC = adult stem cells; iPSC = induced pluripotent stem cells (stem cells derived by reprogramming human somatic cells)

So let me start off with just the first exchange between Tom and myself:

Tom wrote:

Ken, there is no rational reason to focus on ASC "instead of" ESC. It is a false dichotomy. They are separate studies, and DO NOT SHARE FUNDING.

The "ethical qualms" can be easily resolved with a little logical thought:

You are in a burning building. Equidistant from you are a crippled child and two frozen embryos. You only have time to save one, but not both. Which do you save?

If you save the embryos, then what? Like ESCr embryos or leftover IVF embryos, they have a 0% chance of being implanted in a uterus to conceive a pregnancy. Even if they were, 75% of IVF embryos fail to implant. Even if they did, there is a 23% chance that the pregnancy will miscarry. So the embryos really only have the potential to die, anyway.

If you save the child, then you acknowledge that the life of a child is worth more than twice as many embryos; why would you consider it okay to sacrifice these embryos to save a child's life from a fire, but not from a deadly disease?

My response:

Where your analogy is wrong is that it falsely phrases the choice as either save the child ~or~ the embryos, when in fact the child could be saved without the destruction of embryos at all. Let's rewrite your analogy to make it more consistent with the reality of ESCr:

You are in a burning building. Inside the building is a crippled child. You have time to save that one child, but not anyone else. And then someone goes and drops two frozen embryos into the building.

I do believe that the life of a child is worth more than the two frozen embryos, so I would still save the child. But then I would ask, why pursue a line of research that involves the creation and destruction of embryos to find treatments, when iPSCs offer the same potential without requiring the destruction of embryos?

Also, the gov't only has so much funding for research, so whatever goes to ESC is that much less going to ASC and iPSC research.

The debate continues with Part 2: The Leftover Embryos Argument, and Part 3: Dehumanizing the Embryo. Also see my earlier post on The Slippery Slope of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

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  1. Terence said...

    I now fully understand both sides of the story. I agree with you on your question of why use embryos when iPSCs are just as helpful.

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