Taking Stem Cells Seriously

Conservative opponents of embryonic stem cell research frequently argue that supporters of the medical research focus on scientific technicalities at the expense of morality. Eric Cohen, editor of the neoconservative journal The New Atlantis, puts the complaint succinctly:

[c]ritics of the Bush policy should also address its supporters on their own terms, and rather than argue only about scientific adequacy, they should consider seriously the moral dilemma the policy seeks to address (Cohen 2006).

Cohen seems to suggest that the critics of the Bush policy have not addressed the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research. Yet, as Cohen surely knows, numerous authoritative bodies have explained the moral justifications for the research, and most Americans share these views. Cohen and other conservative bioethicists often appear to regard those who do not share their ethical views as lacking in moral seriousness, a position that is itself unserious in its estimation of those who have legitimate disagreements.

Embryonic stem cell research is morally permissible because, although embryos deserve respect, they are not morally equivalent to human beings. This moral argument was described in the 1994 “Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel” (HERP) for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the pluralistic approach: Rather than focus on a single feature to determine when embryos are considered morally equivalent to full persons, the pluralistic approach holds that “protectability is not an all-or-nothing matter but results from a being’s increasing possession of qualities that make respecting it more compelling” (NIH 1994). As human life develops, it begins to take on added moral worth and gains added respect and rights; arguing that a sperm or a collection of cells in a Petri dish are morally equivalent to a living person, or even a developing fetus, fails to recognize the emergent character of human life and personhood.

The HERP report contrasts this pluralistic approach with attempts to find a single criterion that clearly establishes moral status, such as genetic identity or development potential. These attempts inevitably “create paradoxes in logic and run counter to many widely accepted practices,” such as contraception and in vitro fertilization, problems which do not plague the pluralistic approach. The pluralistic approach acknowledges that while an embryo does not entail the same legal and moral protections as a person, it is still valued and protected; embryo destructive research may be conducted, but it must be “well-justified research.”

Scientific bodies, presidential advisory councils, philosophers and theologians of all faiths, and the general public all support regulated embryonic stem cell research based on the lesser moral status of the embryo. As the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) stated in “Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research”,

we have found substantial agreement among individuals with diverse perspectives that although the human embryo and fetus deserve respect as forms of human life, the scientific and clinical benefits of stem cell research should not be foregone (NBAC 1999, 106).

Both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 1999) and the National Academy of Science (Committee on Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research 2005) have concluded that respect for human embryos does not prohibit embryonic stem cell research, and no presidential council, including the current one, has determined that the embryo’s moral status precludes research on it.

The American people also support the nuanced view that embryos possess lesser moral status than persons. Recent polls show that anywhere from 57% to 67% of Americans support stem cell research, and the same Genetics and Public Policy Center study that found that 67% of people support the research also determined that only 30% of the respondents believe the embryo has no moral status (Pew Research Center 2005). Furthermore, the study found that, of those who do accord human embryos the highest moral status, one-third still support human embryonic stem cell research. People do have respect for embryos, which is why they want to ensure that research using them proceeds carefully, ethically and with clear regulations and oversight.

The moral argument of stem cell supporters explains their predilection with scientific technicalities and regulation; the morality of the research depends on these crucial details. Engaging in the serious moral debate at hand means examining the specifics of research procedures, the current state of technology and potential success rates to ensure the research is justified. Research guidelines like those put forward by the National Academies, which require institutional review boards and oversight committees, help ensure that research is “well-justified” enough to ethically allow the destruction of embryos. Ethical standards for stem cell research will need to change along with technology, scientific knowledge and societal attitudes. To ensure ethics keep pace with these changes, and to maintain transparency and public engagement in embryonic stem cell research policies and practices, the National Academies has recently created a committee to monitor the field, updating and adjusting research guidelines as needed.

We are confident, however, that opponents of embryonic stem cell research will continue to depreciate such efforts by the scientific community, and therefore the views of most Americans that they reflect, as lacking in moral seriousness. Diversity of opinion is welcome, but assertions that the proponents of embryo research have failed to address the moral issues are simply false. It is time for these critics to engage in the sort of serious introspection they demand of others.

Republished with permission from the American Journal of Bioethics.


American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1999. Stem cell research and applications: Monitoring the frontiers of biomedical research. Washington, D.c=: AAAS.

Cohen, E. 2006. Stem-cell Back and Forth. National Review Online June 23: n.p. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Committee on Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, National Research Council. 2005. Guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press

National Bioethics Advisory Commission. 1999. Ethical issues in human stem cell research. Washington, D.C.: NBAC.

National Institutes of Health. 1994. Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel. Bethesda, M.D.: NIH.

Hudson K. L., Scott J., and R. Faden. 2005. Values in Conflict: Public Attitudes on Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Washington, D.C.: Genetics and Public Policy Center.