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Human blastocyst

Blastocyst: A hollow structure in early embryonic development that contains a cluster of cells. This cluster is called the inner cell mass and is the beginning stages of an embryo.  It is during this stage that embryionic stem cells are harvested.

In vitro fertilization: The mixing of eggs with sperm in a laboratory petri dish in order to achieve conception outside the womb


If life begins at conception ...

Should discarding of human embryos be considered a form of abortion?

Should infertility practices like invitro fertilization be required (as is the case in some states) to be covered by health insurance plans?

If you believe that an embryo still in the blastocyst stage can ethically be harvested for stem cells ....

Who should decide the fate of embryos?  The government or individual parents?

Should embryos be specifically created for medical and scientific purposes?

Should couples be compensated for the use of embryos?

These are some of the tough questions to be considered but no matter where you stand on the issues, we want to know what you think and why.

Send your thoughts to Editor@isletsofhope.com with the understanding that all letters to the Editor become the property of Islets of Hope and we reserve the right to post all or part of your comments on our site.

You, however, have the right to remain anonymous.


Two articles of interest by Clive Thompson, posted on Wired.com, June 2005

How to Farm Stem Cells Without Losing Your Soul 

4 Ways to "Ethically" Harvest Stem Cells


Is your opinion your own, or being guided by how a question is phrased?

Visit ReligiousTolerance.org and scroll down to their section on "Public Opinion Polls."  This site points out that the simple phrasing of a question can determine public response.  That is, the same question can be asked using different words and people will respond with different answers.

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Diabetes Editorial Features & Specials

Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Harvesting and Research
vs. the Ethics of Being Human

Article by Lahle Wolfe, May 6, 2006
For permission to reprint this article e-mail Editor@isletsofhope.com


The ethical debate of embryonic stem cell research

One of the main controversies surrounding stem cell research arises from how embryonic stem cells are created and harvested. Some embryonic stem cells are harvested from blastocysts that are a by-product of in vitro fertilization by couples attempting to have children. Unused embryos, still in the blastocyst stage of development, rather than being discarded, are "harvested" for stem cells.  Others are deliberately created specifically for research which perhaps creates the most ethical debate of all:  is an embryo human life (does life begin at conception or a certain stage of development) that is entitled to human rights? Or, is a blastocyst just a mass of cells that can be used guilt-free for a greater cause?

In the United States, human embryos now used in research are only those left over from in vitro fertilization.  Embryos that are not used in conception attempts, "adopted" by other couples, or used in embryonic stem cell research are either destroyed or frozen indefinitely by the thousands.  Is it better to discard embryos and assign a “quick and purposeless” death?  Or, to attempt to create some meaningful purpose out of their creation?

These are just a few of the questions people from all walks of life debate.

What is a blastocyst?

A blastocyst is hollow, thin-walled structure in early embryonic development that contains a cluster of cells. This cluster is called the inner cell mass and is the beginning stages of an embryo.  This stage of development occurs around day 6 after fertilization at which time the blastocyst consists of about 120 cells.

The blastocyst is immature and able to divide into two embryos to create identical twins, or in rare cases, merge with another blastocyst.  When a blastocyst merges with another of the opposite sex a "chimera" is created.  A chimera is an individual comprised of combined blastocysts cells with two different sets of DNA. From a purely scientific or biological point of view, these points arguably suggest that the blastocyst is not yet an individual. It is before this stage of development (the final determination of an individual) that embryonic stem cells are extracted.

Another scientific point that can be made is that blastocysts are still far from having a nervous system, brain, or organs, and therefore, biologically speaking, do not physically appear human, have the ability to think nor have any feelings.  But what cannot be argued is that a blastocyst, whether or not yet a human being, does have the properties of life -- as defined by science.

A highly simplistic definition of life is the opposite of death.  By this definition, a blastocyst is not "dead" and therefore, must be living.  But to be defined as a living organism, science uses the test of six basic characteristics:

  • Cells - all living things are composed of one or more cells
  • Organization - cells differentiate into groups to serve a purpose of the living organism
  • Energy - all living organisms use energy
  • Homeostasis - All organisms have stable internal conditions which must be maintained in order to remain alive.
  • Growth - all living organisms grow and change.
  • Reproduction - the ability to reproduce
     

Does a blastocyst meet the criteria of being a living organism?  Even this is debated.  Many believe that a human blastocyst is a human being, with the same rights as any fully-gestated person.  Their opposition to embryonic stem cell use in research is largely driven by this belief because it would mean that any form of destruction of a blastocyst results in the death of an unborn human -- whether harvested, or discarded.

An interesting debate for those who support that a blastocyst is human with rights to life is where do those rights begin and how are they defined? Are embryo rights only in violation when it is to be used in research?  Are rights violated by selective creation?

An average of 2-3 embryos are used during each attempt at conception, with the hope (not odds) that one will survive.  In other words, couples that choose in vitro fertilization enter into the process knowing that some, if not many, of the embryos will not survive.  Is this also something that could be considered an unnecessary sacrifice of life?  A violation of an embryos rights? Is in vitro fertilization another, more acceptable way for a multitude of embryos to be sacrificed in order to help the few?  Few might argue that to sacrifice one like to save another may be a noble deed, but is it a noble deed to create life with the exclusive intent of sacrifice?  And finally, is it "playing God" to create human life then select which embryos will be given a chance to be born, frozen, or discarded?  In other words, do the rights of the embryo only come into question when a decision is made as to how the embryo is to be used, or when it actually is created?

But consider the position of those who do not view a blastocyst as a human being with rights.  They support the furthering of stem cell technology which holds the potential to alleviate the suffering of multitudes of persons affected by disease, and even reversal of injuries like paralysis resulting from spinal cord damage. There are those, convinced that life begins at conception, but who believe that the potential benefits of research outweighs the controversy of medical application of embryonic stem cells.  With so many differing ideas, and complicated issues, it is easy to see why stem cell research has been, and remains, so controversial.

But controversy is good.  When the public debates the benefits and ethics of science, the scientific community generally works harder to either prove themselves correct, or investigate other avenues and theories.  In an age where government funding is limited and the press is rich with tantalizing research headlines, it might even be said that the voice of public conscious is an incentive to scientists to work smarter, not harder.

Science and ethics should not be separated, nor should scientific discovery be sequestered from public scrutiny. Having the ability to do something does not mean that it is in the best interest of the public, or humanity.  In fact, science itself, in its purest form should have no conscious or emotion; science should be the pursuit of fact and truth. Yet people, the public, scientists too, do, and should, have a conscious.  We can create deadly viruses and toxic chemicals for warfare-- but should we?  And for what purpose? What guidelines should be put into place?  These human decisions require something the institution of science cannot offer:  consideration of both consequence and benefit because unlike the physical weight of matter, there is not always a way to counterbalance in applying what science accomplishes.

Strong public opinion and activism serve as a watchdog to help ensure that new ideas are tested, considered, and put to beneficial purpose and not done simply because it was possible.  A collective, private-sector voice spurs science and government to be accountable. And, whether or not you support embryonic stem cell research, is less important than having, and voicing, an educated opinion.

If you're unconvinced of this, remember that the hand of science has far-reaching effects that can be either beneficial or detrimental to mankind.  Without scientific advancement, many of us would not be here today was it not for childhood vaccinations, antibiotics, open-heart surgery, and yes, even in vitro fertilization. But still, many more would be were it not for the atom bomb, agent orange, and bioterrorism.

The ethics of stem cell research remain unclear and necessarily still open to continued debate.  But the ethics of being human clearly require us to exercise care, caution, and good judgment; often considering needs beyond our own.  Because the greater injustice is not always the action of others, but the inaction of those who have the ability to make a positive difference and fail to do so.

Replies welcome.  Contact Editor@IsletsofHope.com


Undecided where you stand?  Want more information? Read both opinion sides of the stem cell debate...

The Case Against Funding Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, by Anton-Lewis Usala, M.D.
The Cases For and Against Stem Cell Research, Fox News, 08/09/2001
Arguments in favor of embryonic stem cell research, Islets of Hope, 05/07/2006
Arguments against embryonic stem cell research, Islets of Hope, 05/07/2006

Page Updated 12/09/2005