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Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Is it right to create embryos to "harvest" stem cells?

Scientists in the US say the have created embryos purely to harvest their stem cells for research purposes.

Embryonic stem cells are the "master" cells that can develop into all of the body's tissues - and thus could theoretically be used to repair damage caused by a host of degenerative diseases.

Human embryos have been created, and discarded, for many years in labs around the world to investigate infertility problems.

But their use solely to collect stem cells has sparked a fierce debate about the ethics of such methods.

Is this the beginning of a slippery slope towards the "utilitarian use" of the human body, as one American religious commentator put it? Or is it a welcome step in the fight against crippling degenerative diseases?

This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

How can all those opposed to this process not see their hypocrisy. If you eat meat, you are taking the life of a fully conscious and aware being, purely for the purposes of gratification. The possible benefits of stem cell research far outweigh those of killing a conscious being just for the sake of eating it and at a far lesser moral price.
Dan, Channel Islands

Doctors create embryos in the knowledge that most of them will be destroyed

Esther, Belgium
Isn't embryo selection quite the same thing? Doctors create embryos in the knowledge that most of them will be destroyed. But that's considered ethical, because it eliminates the chance that a handicapped baby will be born. I don't know at which point life starts, but I know one thing: I wouldn't have a clear conscience if I were responsible for the destruction (stem cell research, embryo selection, abortion...) of embryos.
Esther, Belgium

I wonder if people who are against stem cell research are aware how many embryos are destroyed by nature (or God if you prefer)? Conception is not a single instantaneous event inevitably leading to the birth of a human being but a process which takes place over a period of about a week and is fraught with dangers along the way. Only about 40 percent of embryos eventually implant to establish a pregnancy - the rest have defects which prevent implantation from taking place. And of those which do implant about 30 per cent will be lost in the first three months of pregnancy. Nature - or God - is profligate.
Jane, Wales, UK

This kind of research is seriously wrong

S. Johnson, UK
If there is any lesson to be learned from the science of genetics it is surely that we are "who we are" from the moment of conception, not from the moment of birth. This kind of research is seriously wrong. It isn't even necessary - adult stem cell research is showing far better results, as evidence grows suggesting that embryonic stem cells are too unstable.
S. Johnson, UK

No today, no tomorrow and no for eternity. No one has the right to play God but that is exactly what this is. The US dictates its opinions in so many areas and is looking to add this truly abhorrent practice to the rest. It may not be the place for the rest of the world to dictate to the US on their individuals' rights to 'bear arms' as indeed it is not the place of the US to dictate to the rest of mankind on when life begins and when life ends.
Mark Buckton, Japan /UK

Stem cells can be harvested from the fat cells of liposuction surgery but this isn't a very profitable source of income to the medical industry. I believe that a sperm + egg is a person with a soul and rights. Creating these people in order to kill them is very profitable to the medical industry. I think that creation of people for body parts which may be used in such trivial pursuits such as cosmetic surgery is about on an equal par with breeding slaves and discarding them when are no longer useful.
Peter L. Manly, USA

We were all once at this stage of development

James A, USA
One does not have to be an "uneducated religious fanatic" to oppose stem cell research. I am an agnostic attending one of the most prestigious universities in America, and I am against it. As soon as an embryo is created, that embryo has a genetic structure distinct from its parents, and is thus a separate organism, a separate human. We were all once at this stage of development. I find it repugnant that anyone could have chosen whether I was worthy of existence any time after the sperm touched the egg. Ethically and logically, it's no different than murder.
James A, USA

I understand the concerns people have. I read one article that asked why we want to cure disease. It's not because we want to live forever. For me personally, it's so that I can live at all. So that I can wake up in the morning knowing that the day will not be filled with pain and suffering. And for the millions of other people whom every day rely on this research.
Dave, UK

Don't mess with Mother Nature! Stemming, cloning, where will it end? I can see that we'll all be sorry one day!
Spencer Jones, UK

A lot of the hostile reaction to this development is based on ignorance. We are a long way from being able to "design" babies. One thing the human genome project showed us is just how vastly complex it is. In the mean time if this research offers the prospect of preventing serious human suffering, then why on earth not pursue it?
Philip S. Hall, England

If stem cell harvesting will in any way reduce the inhuman use of animals in "research" then I am all for it.
EJ Drew, Hong Kong

How do people know when the spirit enters this so-called 'bundle of cells'?

Lorna, Ireland
It's very worrying when a society begins to decide what is alive and what isn't through subjective parameters. How do people know when the spirit enters this so-called 'bundle of cells'? Don't NASA space satellites through deduction tell us that 98% of the actual universe is unseen? So maybe on a merely sight-based level, these poor souls appear as a bundle of cells, but what about on the sub-atomic level, and below? There is so much we don't know, so how can we let scientists use their privileged position without every fact being scrutinised? And, by the way, isn't DNA small, miniscule, a blob of proteins, yet no one calls their importance meaningless!
Lorna, Ireland

As a molecular biologist, I used to think that stem cell research should be allowed. After my daughter was born, I began to abhor it -because every embryo has the potential, given the chance, to be a conscious being and a precious child.
M.M. Zaman, UK in US

I see little difference between the conjoined egg/sperm and the sperm and egg cells that existed before they conjoined. These are not yet human beings. If we choose to protect these, then what ethical considerations are given for sperm cells or egg cells, or the cells we destroy as we perform surgery on humans or the DNA strands derived from human cells that we use for research now?
George Milton, USA and Italy

It is simply one more modern form, maybe a "civilised" one at that, of cannibalism. Only we are all already so demented and egotistic, we cannot recognise that bare fact anymore.
Bruno Wolzl, Canada

I bet all the pro-life lot would still use the resulting products if they needed them

Adam, US ex-UK
An embryo may, given the right circumstances, be able to become a human being. But so does a sperm cell have the possibility of providing half the genetic material for a human being. I for one am an adult and would resent being forced into sex for procreation only. A parallel argument implies that the research should be done but that the products of said research should come with a warning label; do not use this product if embryo dissection worries you. Guess what. I bet all the pro-life (i.e. pro impose your morals on everyone else) lot would still use the resulting products if they needed them.
Adam, US ex-UK

How long is it going to be before embryos will be seen just like pieces of meat in a butcher shop? It's bad enough killing off our old people with euthanasia. Now we want to start at the other end. Where's it all going to end!
Gaynor Bonnar, New Zealand

If you can answer which came first the chicken or the egg, you can decide what to do in this case. If you cannot, as I suspect the majority can't, then you can't decide on this issue. If you cannot decide on this issue, then I would have thought the logical thing is to defer on the side of higher authority. The highest authority is unknown but it's definitely not man. Call it God/Force or the great mystery -whatever. But why does man think He can solve it all? Don't humans realise that life is lived in the unknown and the unexpected? Otherwise there is no life to be lived. What is the point of solving all diseases anyway? To live forever? to the maximum? What kind of life is that? Wake up to your senses, modern man!
Ancient Seer, Malaysia

You cannot stop this research

Colin Butts, USA
You cannot stop this research. You may think it is wrong, but the potential rewards make it unstoppable. This argument boils down to morality versus need. The need is overwhelming and the morality takes second place. When you need a procedure just to stay alive, then you can choose to not use the ill-gotten knowledge of embryonic research because God doesn't like it. (Yeah, right!)
Colin Butts, USA

If human embryos can be created for investigating infertility problems and then discarded, why can't they be created for stem cell research alone? Embryonic stem cells are just theoretically supposed to cure the degenerative diseases, we should now be assured through practical research whether they are precisely helpful or not. If they are proved to be really mercurial, we should think of better ideas to obtain human embryos. We should never start a business of human sperm or ova, but can consider the creation of human embryos from the ones who wish to donate their eggs for their own cause.
Rajan Kafle, Nepal

Money, as you well know, has a tendency to make all ethical arguments irrelevant

Tom Byrne, USA
Ahhh the classic ethical argument pitting the arrogance of science versus the superstitions of the masses. Since almost all research is fuelled by commercial concerns, you have to wonder about all the money that is at stake. Money, as you well know, has a tendency to make all ethical arguments irrelevant.
Tom Byrne, USA

I agree with M. Moran's comment. An embryo cannot feel pain or know of its own existence. Therefore, if we can use these embryos to learn more about the human body, why not take advantage of this? Who knows the kinds of disease we may better understand and be able to cure? Someday, the life of one of your loved ones could be saved by the research they are doing today.
Terry, USA

I seem to recall that Sir Isaiah Berlin spoke of the "tragic choices of liberty". This certainly seems to be one of them! For me, the gold standard of treating something or someone ethically is how it affects the self-aware being. That quality of mind is to be nurtured and preserved at all costs. That is where the sanctity lies. If manipulating certain cell types brings a net gain in self-aware beings, I cannot see what is wrong with it.
Paul Connor, Canada

Objectively, this process seems very questionable

Monica C, Ireland
Objectively, this process seems very questionable. Have scientists become body "mechanics", producing spare parts at any price? Subjectively, however, if any one of us or our loved ones fell victim to some dreadful degenerative disease, can we be so sure we wouldn't go to almost any lengths to try and beat it?
Monica C, Ireland

I am in two minds. Morally I do not like the idea of using embryos in research. However, the research can be used to help find the cure to many diseases. Sometimes these issues are portrayed as 'black and white' in order to play on your feelings, when they are a lot more complex.
Jay, Wales

Those who protest against these procedures as being 'unnatural' are deceiving themselves. We have stopped evolution long ago. Unless you wish to give up pre-natal care, all fertility treatments, c-sections and all sorts of other 'unnatural' birth assistance, get used to the brave new world of playing God. Actually, come to think of it, we have already been doing just that for thousands of years already.
Sascha, USA

If the embryo was created from the eggs and sperm of voluntary donors, yes. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I appreciate that there is an ethical problem, but surely if embryos can potentially be used to cure cancer, HIV/Aids or other diseases, this is worth far more in the long term.
Alex, UK

It's a travesty of human rights and justice that this type of activity is allowed. Embryo is a word used to dull our consciences.
John, England

Fertilisation does not create life, it only creates the possibility for life

Matt, Netherlands (ex UK)
The crux of this argument seems to be around the point at which life begins. I too cannot say at which exact point I believe life starts, but I must disagree with those that see a group of non-specific cells as life. These are only the potential for life, in the same way that each individual sperm has the capability to produce a very unique individual. Fertilisation does not create life, it only creates the possibility for life.
Matt, Netherlands (ex UK)

I think that there is a natural balance in the world, and when we interfere somewhere in that balance, a response will be triggered. "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." Therefore if we dabble in nature's way like this, nature will have to re-balance/ react. It seems that scientists don't realise this, or choose to overlook it. As such, I am led to believe that scientists and doctors "in the name of medicine" will try to counter nature, and push and push and the balance will be thrown out further.
Steve, UK

I have no doubt in my mind that this technology should be used. Uneducated religious fanatics are over sentimental and irrationally provoked by terms such as human embryo. Stem cells from human embryos can be used in the treatment of many conditions and we would be fools not to exploit it to its maximum potential.
R Ball, UK

How sad to see some people believe embryos deserve no ethical consideration

Adrian, England
How sad it is to see some people believe embryos deserve no ethical consideration. It's disturbing because their arguments, which generally reduce sentience to some kind of behaviour trait such as 'interaction', would also remove all rights from those who are comatose or even those who are asleep.
Adrian, England

We have to respect God's will towards Nature.
Wales Liphava, Malawi

It does not matter if the embryo is not sentient. It has the potential to develop into a living, breathing human being, which could lead a full and wonderful life that matters. What right do we have to start something like that only to take it away almost immediately? As adults we have certain responsibilities to our children who are not yet developed enough to take care of themselves. We really need to stop and think about this. It is not the only way.
Darren Palmer, UK

As a diabetic, I welcome the opportunity to find a cure

Paul, Monaco
As a diabetic, I welcome the opportunity to find a cure. Stem cell research is vital to achieve this. Perhaps it's selfish, but I don't fancy the greatly increased risk of complications such as blindness, toe amputations and heart attacks that I face. And I don't enjoy the daily rituals of testing my blood levels by pricking my fingers and inserting needles into my stomach six times a day to avoid a coma either. This research represents hope that I can live the life that others lead. Oh to play a game of football without a second thought about medications. Or to be able to eat normal food whenever I wanted. Perhaps it's not so selfish, because there are millions more like me.
Paul, Monaco

Total reactionary poppycock put about by religious fanaticists who care less about their fellow human beings than they do themselves. Are they saying that one person is more valuable than another? That a human being with a life-threatening illness who is raising a family and doing a worthwhile job is worth less than a collection of cells that might grow up to be a child abuser or a murderer? If all life is sacred, then how can you justify saving a non-sentient ball of cells instead of a fully functional human being?
David Gray, Swindon, UK

An embryo in its early stages of development may not be sentient but it has the potential to become a fully-grown person like you or me.
J.White, UK

What really worries me is where it will go from here

James Allan, UK
In terms of ethics, this issue on its own is no more sensitive than the abortion debate - if that wasn't enough. The argument over whether embryos qualify as human is old news and something that everyone is never going to agree on. What really worries me is where it will go from here. Where will it end? Having specially genetically modified humans born simply for the purpose of organ donation? If you ask me, a line has to be drawn somewhere.
James Allan, UK

It's just plain ignorant to condemn a technology that holds promise for curing millions of people. It's time we as a civilisation realised that religion has been holding back scientific progress for too long.
Doug Pichen, USA

Where do we draw the line?

Lisa, UK
So human embryos have been used and discarded for many years. However scientists can always make up a valid excuse for tests they want to perform. Where do we draw the line? I can see people might benefit from this research but, if we keep pushing the boundaries, eventually the line of decency and ethics will be crossed.
Lisa, UK

There is no reason that anyone could give which would lead me to change my opinion on this. It is manifestly wrong to create life and then to destroy it.
Martin, UK

I honestly don't know why people wouldn't want to use this technology. Learning how to do this is part of our evolution and if we ignore or reject technology like this based on our fears, well we will just be doing ourselves harm in the long run. Of course you will always get some people kicking up a fuss about this, a 150 years ago these were the people who thought electricity was the work of the devil.
Stuart Mundy, UK

We should not be using human life as a means to an end

Nick, UK
This is disgraceful. We should not be using human life as a means to an end. We were all embryos once, and IVF children were embryos created in a lab. I would not want some scientist deciding if I should live or die. This is a step too far.
Nick, UK

In the early stages of development an embryo is nothing more than an amorphous ensemble of cells. The embryo is not sentient. It has no individuality, interests or capacity for suffering. It is utterly oblivious as to its own existence. In this respect, to accord any ethical significance to an embryo is as irrational as fretting over the dismantling of an unwanted wristwatch.

Opponents of stem cell harvesting accord a "sanctity" to embryonic existence. Yet there is nothing specific to justify this sanctity. Crudely put, ethics arise due to interactions between individuals and the adversity that they incur and/or perceive. In the first few months of its development an embryo can neither perceive nor interact and therefore does not warrant any ethical consideration whatsoever.
M. Moran, UK

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See also:

12 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Row over made-to-order stem cells
19 Feb 01 | San Francisco
Umbilical cords to repair brain damage

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