When are we human? The dilemma of embryonic stem cell research

Christian voices have been prominent in recent months over the issue of whether to allow scientific research to take place on stem cells. Megan Best, a doctor trained in bioethics, explains what is at stake.

When Prime Minister John Howard recently announced his intention to allow human stem cell research in Australia, there were still many citizens wondering what the debate was about. This momentous decision had been made before an informed and thorough community discussion had taken place. Legislation has not yet been passed, though, and there is still time for the Christian community to get informed and take action.

Stem cells

Stem cells were first extracted from embryos in 1998. This caused great excitement in the scientific world, because stem cells have special properties. They have the capacity to develop into many different body tissue types (such as bone, muscle, brain etc) and can replicate themselves indefinitely. Scientists hope to use them to replace tissue in patients where cell death has occurred. For example, heart disease can result in the death of cells which the body cannot replace, and it is hoped that injected stem cells may stimulate heart tissue growth. It is hoped that cures will be developed for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and injuries such as a severed spinal cord. Since the first discovery it has been found that stem cells also occur in adults, children, placentas and umbilical cord blood. The recent government decision was to allow ‘spare’ embryos in infertility clinics (that is, embryos which were created in excess of patient need), to be used as a source of stem cells for experimentation.

The harvesting of stem cells from human embryos causes the death of the embryo. Taking stem cells from sources other that the embryo does not harm a human being.


A detail which was not always explained in the media coverage of embryonic stem cell research is that it will require human cloning to become a therapeutic reality. In order to avoid immune system rejection of the stem cells injected into a patient, the cells will have to match the patient’s DNA. Therefore, the IVF embryo stem cells will not be useful in actually treating patients as they will have their own different DNA. To overcome this problem, scientists plan to create human clones of each patient to be treated. The clones will be grown in a laboratory for 5-7 days, then killed when the stem cells are taken out. These stem cells will match the patient, and after being transformed into the needed cell type, will be injected back into the patient. The process used to create the clone is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. It is the same technique as that used to make Dolly the sheep. Even though scientists have tried to confuse us by saying that ‘therapeutic’ cloning (that used to get stem cells) and ‘reproductive’ cloning (that used to create a live birth) are different, they use the same method. If a human clone made for stem cells were put in a woman’s womb instead of being killed for stem cells, it would grow into a baby. This is not a wild fantasy – Dr Severino Antinori in Italy has already hinted that a woman in his programme (which uses somatic cell nuclear transfer) is pregnant with a human clone.

Cloning is not involved in adult stem cell therapy as the cells can be taken from the patient to be treated, so there is no risk of immune rejection.

Treating diseases

Three areas in which embryonic stem cell research is said to be successful are Parkinson’s Disease, spinal cord repair and diabetes. However, even at their most successful, the results in adult stem cell research are far more impressive (see www.stemcellresearch.org).

Weighing the arguments

Mr Howard indicated that he was finally convinced to allow human embryo destruction because he could see no ethical difference between allowing a human embryo to die through being defrosted in a laboratory, and ending its life through research. Many agree with him. However, the Bible makes it clear that the unborn are known and loved by God (see Ps 139:13-16). We are told not to kill our fellow humans who are made in the image of God (see Gen 9:6). As Christians we believe that human embryos are just that, human. They need to be treated with the dignity that humans deserve. This is not done when we exploit one group of humans, however small, to benefit another group (such as the sick). Scripture warns us against doing evil so that good may result (Is 5:20; Rom 3:8).

As Christians we also need to oppose human cloning in any form. ‘Therapeutic’ cloning is offensive as it involves creating a human specifically for destruction for another person’s benefit. It will lead to exploitation of women as a large number of eggs will be needed. Egg collection is an invasive and potentially dangerous procedure, but women may be pressured into cooperating for financial reasons. The American company which attempted cloning humans late last year paid $US3,500 to $4,000 to each woman who donated eggs. And as long as cloning is going on in laboratories, there is the risk that reproductive cloning will occur. We need to ban all cloning to remove that risk.

Finally, embryonic stem cell research and the associated cloning is unnecessary because adult stem cells have been shown to be even more effective for treatment with no associated ethical dilemmas.

How should Christians respond?

Take the opportunity to write to your state and federal parliament representatives to register your opposition to this technology. Every letter makes a difference.

  1. Use of ‘spare’ IVF embryos for stem cells and human cloning is not yet legal in Australia. Ask your representative to oppose this legislation. Tell her why you object. Ask parliamentary leaders to allow a conscience vote on these matters.
  2. Encourage our government to invest in adult stem cell research, which currently shows more promise for cures than embryonic stem cell research.
  3. Question the regulation of infertility clinics which have allowed over 60,000 ‘excess’ embryos accumulate in our country despite guidelines recommending that surplus embryo production be avoided.

It is time to reject the prevailing notion in our community that scientists know best and that all ‘progress’ is good. Science can bring wonderful benefits to the sick, but it must not be done at the cost of exploiting the some of the most vulnerable humans in our community.

This topic raises profound issues for Christians. We are considering the issue of what it is that constitutes a human life. Once we move away from conception as the beginning of life, any point we choose is arbitrary. At the moment in Australia human embryos can be cultured in laboratories and experimented on up to the age of 14 days. We have our politicians contemplating the option of creating embryos with the intention of destroying them for research purposes. Not for the chance of a life. What will happen if scientists discover that stem cells from a one month old fetus are better than those from a 6 day old embryo? Will we keep saying they can do whatever they like? Where will it end? We must act now.

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