Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is a rapidly developing discipline in modern medicine. With the potential to treat diseases, like Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, and a unique ability to multiply into other types of cells, stem cells offer great promise for understanding human development. Along with the praise, hESC research raises a controversial debate involving the treatment of developing human life.
At 5 days old, an embryo is a clump of cells called a blastocyst, about four times the width of human hair.
The inner cell mass of a blastocyst is a ball of 10–20 cells that are unspecialized. They are pluripotent, or able to multiply and differentiate to make every type of cell in the human body.
Unlike regular cells with the sole ability to replicate themselves, when a hESC is divided, it forms a daughter cell and another stem cell. The new stem cells continue the process of replication and cell differentiation, while the new daughter cells form specialized cells that serve a specific bodily function.
Women who undergo infertility treatment are left with a frozen embryo at the end. They could either discard their embryo, give the embryo to another woman–with the chance of pregnancy being 18% according to Medical News Today–or donate them to research.
Extracting hESC from embryos destroys them in the process. This is where the controversy lies.
For some, the repercussions of extracting hESC from embryos is worth it, as they will go towards saving multiple already born lives. Others believe embryos are to be treated like regular human beings, making the usage of embryos in stem cell research unethical.
In the US, the controversial question of when human life begins has been long debated. Some believe that an embryo is a person entitled to the same rights as a live-born human. An individual is deemed human at the point of conception. According to this belief, the process of extracting inner stem cells from dead embryos is murder.
Others have a different perspective on the status of an embryo, claiming that it becomes a person entitled to human rights at a later stage of development than fertilization, typically in the second trimester of pregnancy. This is due to the lack of a neural system allowing sensation and senses in the early stages of an embryo. This view justifies the usage of embryos in stem cell research by defining early-stage embryos as a nonliving clump of cells.
The former perspective argues that extracted embryos should be re-implanted into another uterus so that they can develop into fully grown humans. However, the possibility of a successful pregnancy is slim to none. Alternatively, using embryos for research will unquestionably maintain the life of a live-born human.
The regenerative potential of hESC is uncanny. According to Mayo Clinic, stem cells can replace cells damaged by chemotherapy or disease, and help heal damaged tissues and organs. They could also be implanted into a donor’s immune system to fight blood-related diseases and certain types of cancer such as leukemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, and multiple myeloma–all of which can be fatal. Human embryonic stem cell research is essential to the progression of modern-day medicine.
In the question of creating or preserving life, the odds of success in each outcome should be taken into account. Life should not be gambled with. Embryos should go where they will guarantee life: under the care of hESC researchers.