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New Book: The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

There is wide agreement that embryonic stem cell research holds unique promise for developing therapies for currently incurable diseases and conditions, and for important biomedical research. However, as it is currently done, the isolation of embryonic stem cells involves a process in which an early embryo is destroyed, which many find highly problematic.

This has resulted in what I refer to in my book as

The Problem. Either one supports embryonic stem cell research and accepts resulting embryo destruction, or one opposes embryonic stem cell research and accepts that the potential benefits of this research will be foregone.

I focus squarely on the Problem, and more in particular, on two types of response to it.

The first type of response has been to adopt a middle ground position—a position between the dominant opposing views on the permissibility of embryonic stem cell research. The two dominant opposing views hold respectively that all embryonic stem cell research is morally unacceptable and that embryonic stem cell research is no more problematic than other kinds of research in cell biology. By contrast, middle ground positions—positions between these two views—distinguish between different types or aspects of embryonic stem cell research, accepting some but not others. Examples are the popular position that it is presumptively permissible to derive stem cells from embryos left over from IVF treatments but not from embryos created especially for the purpose of research, or the position that it can be permissible to use embryonic stem cells in research but not to derive these cells, since this involves embryo destruction.

The second type of response to the Problem has been the development of technical solutions. Several techniques have been proposed to enable researchers to obtain embryonic stem cells, or their functional equivalents, without harming or destroying embryos. Examples are a technique referred to as ‘blastomere extraction’, and the induced pluripotent stem cell technique.

My main approach is to highlight inconsistencies in the arguments for these proposed solutions to the Problem. I aim to show that they all fail for similar reasons: they depend on inconsistent argumentation. In each case, either (i) the argument that the supposedly permissible kind of research is permissible also shows that the supposedly impermissible kind of research is permissible, or (ii) the argument that the supposedly impermissible kind of research is impermissible also shows that the supposedly permissible kind is impermissible. The arguments for these positions only appear to succeed if we apply those arguments selectively to certain types of pluripotent stem cell research, without drawing out their implications for others.

Though the main point of my book is to show that the proposed solutions to the Problem are not correct ethical positions – they are not true or epistemically justified – I also briefly consider whether they should nevertheless be defended as compromise positions. Even if they are not the correct ethical positions, we might still have strong reasons to publicly defend or accept them, for example, because this will have the best consequences, or because this expresses respect for a variety of reasonable views in a democratic society. However, I show that there is almost always a cost – an indirect epistemic cost –  to doing so, and that this cost almost always provides a significant reason against defending the proposed solutions as compromise positions.

I conclude that the central tension in the embryonic stem cell debate remains unresolved. This conclusion has important implications for the stem cell debate, as well as for policies inspired by this debate.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Dr. Lanza of Ocata Therapeutics has perfected a procedure that does not kill the ball of cells called the Blastomere at the pre -embryonic stage before the morula is formed ….The cells line are called NED …….The human blastomere pluripotent stem cells are pre blastocyst ……the original so called “embryonic stem cells ” were blastocysts and required the destruction of the organism ……This is not the case since 2006 you need to update your knowledge base ……

    Work from Tufts Veterinary School with Dogs using human blastomere derivative cells will prove most of your assumptions wrong because of of the potency in the gene expression ….check it out Andy Hoffman Tufts Dog trials or Arnold Caplin on you tube MSC

    By the Ocata has cure blindness and halted the disease process in 28 patients in stage I with these blastomere pluripotent stem cells….

    Human embryonic stem cell lines derived from single blastomeres
    November 23, 2006 | See the paper »

    Derivation of human embryonic stem cells from single blastomeres
    Volume 2, 2007 | See the paper »

    Human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium in patients with age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy: follow-up of two open-label phase 1/2 studies
    October 15, 2014 | See the paper »

    Mesenchymal Stem Cell Population Derived from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells Displays Potent Immunomodulatory and Therapeutic Properties Erin
    March 20, 2014 | See the paper »

    Human ESC-Derived MSCs Outperform Bone Marrow MSCs in the Treatment of an EAE Model of Multiple Sclerosis
    July 8, 2014 | See the paper »

    1. Dear Hank,

      Thanks for you comment. I discuss ‘blastomere extraction’ in Chapter 4 of my book. I disagree that it provides a satisfactory solution to the Problem for those who believe embryos should not be destroyed for scientific research, and this for reasons outlined in that chapter.



  2. Dear Katrien

    I read your book announcement and summary/sample pages with interest and have been meaning to comment – apologies for the delay.

    Hank mentioned NED technology/Blastomere and I note you have indeed spoken to the issue in your work.

    However, not knowing exactly your positioning on the issue and the reasoning behind the “problem” remaining, irrespective of science and even a middle way solution is a difficulty in itself – that is if you don’t buy your book.

    I believe the best way to promote your efforts would be to engage in a healthy debate on the subject – should you wish to expose your thesis and increase awareness of your book.

    I’d welcome you to contact me and schedule an appropriate time to engage on the topic on iCell in our Bioethics Forum. The website is read regularly by tens of thousands of interested parties to the topic of stem cells and it would be worth debating the concepts you raise – if you’re up to it of course.

    Michael (“msemporda”)

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