Are Stem Cells Babies?

Only if every other human cell is, too.


As all the world knows, President Bush is wrestling with the decision of whether or not the federal government should fund research on human embryonic stem cells. He reportedly met privately with a group of unidentified bioethicists Tuesday night to discuss the issue. In addition, Congress is considering legislation that would criminalize stem cell research, punishing researchers with 10 year jail terms and $1 million fines. The health of millions is in the balance.

Proponents of the research, including 80 Nobel Laureates, argue that stem cells derived from human embryos could possibly cure a host of degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver. "It is not unrealistic to say that [stem cell research] has the potential to revolutionize medicine," says former National Institute of Health Director Harold Varmus in Newsweek.

Opponents, while acknowledging the cures, respond that using stem cells is immoral because, in their view, the cells can only be derived by killing the tiniest and most helpless of human beings. As Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, has said, "We believe very strongly that people should not be discriminated against based on age or location in the petri dish."

Currently, human embryonic stem cells are derived from donated frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. That may be changing, and sooner than we think. Just this week, a study published in Fertility and Sterility revealed that a fertility clinic in Norfolk, Virginia, has created embryos using donor eggs and sperm specifically for the purpose of deriving stem cells.  The researchers argue that specifically creating embryos to derive stem cells is, in their view, less ethically problematic because such embryos are never intended to be implanted in a woman's womb and so were never intended to become babies.

Embryos, whether donated or specifically created, are grown in petri dishes for about a week, at which point they have divided into a microscopic, hollow ball of about 100 cells. Researchers then remove the inner cell mass, the cells of which can differentiate into all the kinds of tissues in a human body.

Stem cells can be transformed into any kind of tissue and used to repair organs damaged by strokes, trauma, and degenerative diseases. Researchers at Geron Corporation claim to have learned how to turn human embryonic stem cells into 110 different kinds of cells, including heart muscle, neurons, and immune system cells.

So what about the claims that incipient therapies based on human embryonic stem cell research are immoral? That brings us to the question of whether the embryos from which stem cells are derived are persons. The answer: Only if every cell in your body is also a person.

Why? Because scientific ingenuity now makes it logically (if not quite logistically) possible for each of your body's cells to become your twin. (See "Petri Dish Politics.")

Each skin cell, each neuron, each liver cell is potentially a person. All that's lacking is the will and the application of the appropriate technology. Cloning technology like that which famously produced the Scottish sheep Dolly in 1997 could be applied to each of your cells to potentially produce babies (a mammary cell was used to create Dolly).

Cloning technology at this point in time is clunky. In the future, though, researchers will likely be able to skip cloning, and simply flip few genetic switches to regress any of your cells to earlier stages of development, claims Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health. After all, each of your cells contains the complete genetic code which produces you. Ultimately, researchers could take your cells all the way back to the embryonic stage, at which point they could be implanted into a womb, where they could eventually develop into complete human beings.

Why go on about the fate of your skin and liver cells that are destined to be sloughed off during your next shower or die of alcohol poisoning at your next cocktail party? Clearly, they are not going to become your twins. Ah, but they could, if only you would let them.

"What happens when a skin cell turns into a totipotent stem cell [a cell capable of developing into a complete organism] is that a few of its genetic switches are turned on and others turned off," writes University of Melbourne bioethicist Julian Savulescu in the April 1999 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. "To say it doesn't have the potential to be a human being until its nucleus is placed in the egg cytoplasm [i.e., cloning] is like saying my car does not have the potential to get me from Melbourne to Sydney unless the key is turned in the ignition."

Like turning the key in the ignition to begin a journey, simply starting a human egg on a particular path, either through fertilization or cloning, is a necessary condition for developing a human being, but it isn't sufficient. A range of other conditions must also be present. Those conditions include the availability of a suitable environment such as a woman's womb. (Some 40 percent of embryos produced naturally do not implant and so never develop into babies.)

Two well known pro-life politicians understand that "certain conditions" make a difference. According to Newsweek, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) argues that "a frozen embryo stored in a refrigerator in a clinic" isn't the same as "a fetus developing in a mother's womb." Connie Mack, former Republican senator from Florida, declares, "For me, as long as that fertilized egg is not destined to be placed in a uterus, it cannot become life." In other words, for Hatch and Mack, location in a petri dish makes a lot of difference.

"I cannot see any intrinsic morally significant difference between a mature skin cell, the totipotent stem cell derived from it, and a fertilised egg," writes Savulescu. "They are all cells which could give rise to a person if certain conditions obtained."

"If all our cells could be persons, then we cannot appeal to the fact that an embryo could be a person to justify the special treatment we give it," concludes Savulescu.

The DNA content of a skin cell, a stem cell, and a fertilized egg are exactly the same. The difference between what they are and what they could become is the environment in which their DNA is found. Thus, the mere existence of human DNA in a cell cannot be the source of a relevant moral difference. The differences among these cells are a result of how the genes in each are expressed, and that expression depends largely on which proteins suppress or promote which genes.

So people who oppose stem cell research must logically be committed to the notion that the only difference between your skin cell and your twin are the proteins that decorate their DNA strands. But can moral relevance really be reduced to the presence or absence of certain proteins in a cell?