Ethics of Stem Cell Research

Table of Contents


Stem cells capable of regenerating any tissue and organs in the body. They are characteristically pluripotent, allowing them to replenish damaged body tissues. In an adult human, bone marrow cells have the ability to divide constantly to replenish dying blood cells.

Pluripotency allows embryonic cells to “divide continuously to giving rise to differentiated tissues and organs[1]. They also produce replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease[2]. While embryonic stem cells develop from pre-implantation embryos and are pluripotent, adult stem cells occur in fetal and adult stages[3]. In the human body, adult stem cells function in repair and replacement of worn-out tissues.

Concerns over Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research has potential benefits in the treatment of chronic diseases. Stem cell therapy has shown promising results in the treatment of leukemias and blood and bone marrow disorders[4]. Current research focuses on developing stem cell therapy for heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes mellitus, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and arthritis.

Fetal surgery for the treatment of patients with congenital anatomical abnormalities such as myelomeningocele is also a promising area of stem cell research[5].

Cell replacement therapy for neurodegenerative defects, such as multiple sclerosis, have been found to offer long-term physiological benefits, making it a better alternative to conventional drug therapy[6]. Stem cells are also useful in drug research and development. Cell lines from carriers of genetic diseases are used to model the disorders and test potential, thus, speeding up the drug trial process.

Ethical perspectives aim to identify principles of right action that can guide society in thinking about moral decisions or how to navigate through dilemmas[7]. In this respect, though scientific research is essential in solving contemporary problems facing humans, it must be done within the confines of ethical conduct[8].

In stem cell research, several ethical issues dominate public debates. In particular, the issues of right to life at the fetal stage and the criteria for disseminating medical breakthroughs remain contentious. Another issue relates to the risks versus the benefits of research involving embryonic cells.

The moral debate also revolves around the rights of fetuses and issues of consent. The challenge lies in determining whether it is moral to harvest cells from a human fetus for scientific research. Proponents advance the argument that a fetus at an early stage of life is underdeveloped, and therefore, does not have the attributes of an adult or a young child[9].

They argue that it has no resemblance to a human being, has nobody organs and organ systems, and lacks self-awareness. However, critics contend that it is unethical to utilize embryonic cells for research as doing so contravenes the dignity of the unborn child.

They also hold that all humans share common attributes, and thus, claiming that embryos lack sentience is erroneous[10]. Their argument relates to the embryology perspective, which holds that “human life begins at fertilization” [11]. Therefore, embryos, being human beings at an early stage of development, cannot be used in scientific research.

In contrast, proponents of stem cell research fault the embryology perspective by arguing that research on embryos is ethical, as evidenced in identical twins that develop from the splitting of an early embryo. They pose the question: “If life begins at conception, then when does the life start for the twins?” They reckon that humans, being moral beings, cannot be equated with animals[12].

Thus, while research on animals may be permissible, the same cannot be said about humans what humans identify as the self is not the body, but the conscious. In this view, humans do not exist until they develop consciousness, and therefore, the destruction of the embryos for research cannot be morally wrong[13]. In this regard, participating patients must give informed consent prior to the use of embryonic cells sourced from unborn fetuses[14].

The ethical implications of the techniques used for obtaining stem cells have also borne on the actions of scientists and the decisions of policymakers. Another good source of pluripotent cells for research is stillborn fetuses or adults.

This procedure is less controversial, the only ethical issue being the acquisition of proper donor consent. Patients carrying cancerous embryos can donate them for research since the fetus will not survive upon birth[15]. The scientific and ethical concern presented by this approach concerns the potential of induction of tumorigenesis in recipients.

In vitro fertilization often generates test tube zygotes ready for uterine implantation. However, unsuccessfully implanted zygotes can be used for scientific research if the parents consent. This procedure involves the destruction of the embryo and is not acceptable to those who believe human embryos have a moral status similar to that of adult human beings.

However, in vitro, fertilization yields many fetuses to increase the chances of successful implantation[16]. Atsuo raises serious ethical concerns over the creation of more than one embryo through the IVF procedure[17].

He holds that it is both unlawful and unethical to do artificial fertilization to generate embryos for research. In non-destructive embryo cell extraction, a single cell or a small number of cells is extracted from an early-stage embryo. These cells have the potential to divide and give rise to a line of embryonic stem cells[18].

Embryonic stem cells can also be obtained from dead embryos, i.e., embryos that have stopped dividing. The ethical question posed with this procedure is how certain one can be that the embryo is dead since death is the failure of important organs like the heart and the brain, which the embryo does not have[19].

Critics also argue that doctors may misuse in vitro fertilization, creating excess fetuses for sterile couples. Thus, in vitro fertilization done for generating embryos for science is unethical and unlawful.

In the debate on embryo research, two perspectives are evident, namely, a ‘fetalist’ perspective and a feminist perspective. Proponents of the ‘fetalist’ view argue that fetuses have rights, and thus, research-based on embryonic cells dehumanizes them.

It makes fetuses mere objects of scientific research. In contrast, the feminist perspective focuses on the interests of women who donate the oocyte[20]. Normally, in the IVF procedure, female patients receive drugs to stimulate the required hormonal balance and increase the chances of implantation. In addition, the perspective considers the moral justification related to the treatments.

The Pros of Stem Cells Research

It is evident that stem cells have great potential as therapeutic agents for chronic human diseases, including cancer and heart disease. They can divide to generate new tissue that can then be transplanted into the patient to remedy a disease condition or disorder.

In this view, proponents contend that promoting this kind of research will lead to several medical breakthroughs beneficial to humans. In addition, they note that research on embryonic cells will enrich our basic scientific knowledge. The pursuit of scientific knowledge, though a valuable undertaking, runs the risk of being abused in the future by researchers interested in unethical projects, such as human cloning.

Stem cell therapy presents some advantages in that it makes transplantation a success as reprogrammed adult cells are rarely rejected[21]. In addition, the ability to grow embryonic stem cells helps to generate more stem cells for research, thus circumventing the task of frequent isolation from embryos. With stem cell research, the histo-compatibility barrier is avoided, especially with the use of IPS cells[22].

Stem cell therapy has potential as a remedy for congenital abnormalities. One such chronic disorder is multiple sclerosis, which defies conventional interventions. In this respect, the research can create an effective therapy to help patients with birth defects lead to a normal life.

In addition, disorders caused by hormonal deficiency can be treated with organ transplantation. Pluripotent cells, under the right conditions, can generate new tissues and organs with potential as transplants. Therefore, the therapeutic benefits of research based on embryonic cells are immense.


Looking at the benefits and shortcomings presented by stem cell research, one is left in a dilemma whether to support it or advocate for its discontinuity. Individuals are torn between respecting the sanctity of human life or alleviating the suffering of many sick people through stem cell therapy.

The benefits accruing from stem cell research are immense and indispensable. With proper regulations, policies, and scrutiny, they can be harnessed to improve the health of the sick people.


[1] James, Bobrow, “The Ethics and Politics of Stem Cell Research,” Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society 104 (2005): 139.

[2] Bobrow, “The Ethics and Politics of Stem Cell Research,” 140.

[3] Connie Witherspoon, “Ethical Considerations Regarding Stem Cell Research,” The New Atlantis 1(2012): 98.

[4] Witherspoon, “Ethical Considerations Regarding Stem Cell Research,” 100

[5] Witherspoon, “Ethical Considerations Regarding Stem Cell Research,” 105

[6] Witherspoon, “Ethical Considerations Regarding Stem Cell Research,” 108

[7] Montague Shelby. “Stem Cell Research: The Ethical Issues,” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 82 (2009): 125.

[8] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 127.

[9] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 125.

[10] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 126.

[11] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 126.

[12] Guido De Wert and Christine Mummery, “Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Research, Ethics and Policy,” Oxford Journals 18 (2015): 672.

[13] De Wert and Mummery, “Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” 674.

[14] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 127

[15] De Wert and Mummery, “Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” 674.

[16] Ogura Atsuo, “Recent Advancements in Cloning by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer,” The Royal Society Publishing 138 (2012): 1.

[17] Ogura Atsuo, “Recent Advancements in Cloning by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer,” 2.

[18] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 127

[19] Shelby, “Stem Cell Research,” 127

[20] Ogura Atsuo, “Recent Advancements in Cloning by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer,” 2.

[21] Deborah White, “Pros & Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Stem Cell Research News 1 (2015): 1.

[22] Deborah White, “Pros & Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” 2.


Atsuo, Ogura. “Recent Advancements in Cloning by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.” The Royal Society Publishing 138 (2012): 1-2.

Bobrow, James. “The Ethics and Politics of Stem Cell Research.” Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society 104 (2005): 138-42.

De Wert, Guido, and Christine Mummery. “Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Research, Ethics and Policy.” Oxford Journals 18 (2015): 672-682.

Shelby, Montague. “Stem Cell Research: The Ethical Issues.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 82 (2009): 125-131.

White, Deborah. “Pros & Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Stem Cell Research News 1 (2015): 1-4.

Witherspoon, Connie. “Ethical Considerations Regarding Stem Cell Research.” The New Atlantis 1 (2012): 98-113.

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