The Case Against
Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research
by Anton-Lewis Usala,
August 23, 2000, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued final
guidelines for federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Senate
hearings quickly followed on a bill to fund the destruction of human embryos
for their stem cells. On February 23, 2001, President George W. Bush
received a letter urging him to support federal funding for such research.
This letter was signed by eighty Nobel laureates, and came on the heels of a
similar letter signed by 123 organizations sent the previous month.
What are these "stem cells" and why this enormous interest in them?
Briefly, stem cells are cells that have the potential to become many other
kinds of cells, depending on the signals they receive. They theoretically
provide avenues for replacing damaged or non-functioning tissue to treat
many kinds of diseases. Stem cells are found from the beginning of embryonic
development throughout adult life. Some researchers believe that stem cells
found in the embryo provide more potential for regenerating tissue than do
stem cells taken from older, adult donors.
The question arises: Since human embryonic stem cells may provide the basis
for some medical miracles, shouldn't the federal government fund research
utilizing "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics?
Wouldn't this be a better use for discarded embryos than destroying or
freezing them as is currently done?
To address the question whether government funding should support human
embryonic stem cell research, we need to consider the following:
What is the scientific
and medical rationale for considering this line of research and its
What are the secular
ethical arguments pro and con?
What are the legal and
The reader will notice that
religious arguments are not a part of this list. As I testified to a Senate
subcommittee on this issue last September, it became very evident that while
religious arguments would be politely listened to, they served as a
convenient opportunity to dismiss contrary views. Many legislators take a
literalist view of "separation of Church and State," hence they dismiss
religious arguments as perhaps a valid personal view, but not worthy of a
substantive response in a secular arena.
Catholic teaching strongly opposes any procedure that willfully terminates
innocent human life, from the time of conception until natural death. Jesus
Christ taught that each human being is important to God, and each is
responsible for his or her own actions. Individuals will be judged not by
the goodness of those around them, but by how well they personally have
lived according to God's Word.
Fortunately, the essence of these points can be found in a revered document
in secular law. All societies are based on the rule of law, even unjust
societies. What distinguish a just from an unjust society are the legal
precedents accepted as the basis for its jurisprudence. In my view, the
United States is a uniquely just society, because it is the first government
in the history of mankind in which the rights of the individual supersede
the perceived rights of the State. The individual is the most valued entity
in society. This precept is found in the first ten amendments to the United
States Constitution, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights.
This is the crux of our argument in the secular world–and one which
coincides with the teachings of Jesus Christ–that the individual human being
is the most sacred and inviolable entity in our society, and can never be
seen simply as an object or as raw material to be used for the public good,
even so demonstrable a good as another's health or life.
Scientific and Medical Rationale for Considering Human Embryonic Stem Cell
Medical science now provides no definitive therapy for many debilitating
diseases. In fact, with the exception of antibiotics and other infectious
disease therapies, medical science offers few definitive cures for human
disease. Most therapies either control the disease, slow its progression, or
palliate its effects.
The ability to regenerate poorly functioning or damaged tissue might provide
definitive therapy for many of the above diseases. The ability to regenerate
central nervous system structures may help paraplegics regain the ability to
walk. Regeneration of parts of the brain that make dopamine might cure
Parkinson's disease. Regeneration of the pancreatic tissue that makes
insulin could conceivably cure diabetes.
Some medical researchers use cells that have not yet differentiated into
specific kinds of tissue, and therefore might be induced to become the kind
of tissue needed to treat a specific disease. These pluripotent stem cells
are abundantly present during embryonic development (when most cells are
just beginning to differentiate, or specialize), and become less abundant as
the organism matures into adulthood. However, stem cells are apparently
present throughout human life.
Studies in animals, and some preliminary studies in humans, have shown the
ability of adult stem cells to improve various conditions associated with
disease. Studies using human embryonic stem cells as a treatment do not yet
exist. One misleading conclusion drawn from those favoring embryonic stem
cell research is that it is a "medical breakthrough." It is not. It is an
interesting idea favored by many scientists at NIH and leading universities.
As a person having diabetes 41 of my 42 years, I have seen many theories
espoused by the NIH and leading academics proven disastrously wrong. Until
the early 1990's, the NIH and leading academic medical centers showed, in
study after study, that the degree of blood sugar control made no difference
in the onset of devastating circulatory complications associated with
diabetes. At ten years of age, I thought this was nonsense. Nature kept
blood sugar levels in a tight range for a reason, so I surreptitiously began
taking injections of fast acting insulin before I ate. For that reason I am
alive to tell you the story. Now, of course, everyone knows blood sugar
control is the single largest determinant of whether or not someone with
Type I diabetes develops circulatory complications.
There is also a huge difference between promising research and the ability
to turn research into a medical product. It takes years to conduct the basic
science research, and many more years to turn discoveries into a usable
medical therapy. Products that are now in human clinical trials are years
ahead of any new basic science effort in, for example, embryonic stem cell
research, now being proposed for federal funding. I founded a company,
Encelle, Inc., to fund research on potential therapies for diabetes and
other diseases requiring replacement of destroyed or non-functioning
tissues. As my approach was outside the NIH approach, we did not seek
funding from traditional NIH or foundation sources until very late in our
development. Instead, we sought private investment.
We are in our first human clinical trials with a product that we believe
regenerates human tissue. Preliminary results are very exciting, and seem to
confirm what we have found in animal studies—that exposure of patient
tissues to our product after only a one-time injection regenerates complex
tissue structures, resulting in healing of chronic skin ulcers. Our material
(a co-polymer artificially synthesized to resemble connective tissue
structures found during embryonic development) apparently induces
de-differentiation followed by explosive differentiation to regenerate
completely integrated tissue. These results have been demonstrated in four
different species of animals, and we are awaiting results in our first human
Along with greater understanding of cellular differentiation comes the
scientific realization that defines the human being. At the Senate
subcommittee hearing, I was impressed that those both for and against human
embryo research said the human embryo should be treated with respect. I gave
the following dispassionate definition of what was human in my testimony:
Replication of specific tissue requires cells to receive an enormous number
of specific signals. What defines a human life is the cellular mass that is
able to produce and integrate this enormous number of sequences, that occurs
shortly after fertilization. The cascade of specific cellular
differentiation begins, and continues throughout the adult life of the
person. It can be argued when the reasoning of the fetal organism begins; it
cannot be argued when it is human.
While embryonic stem cell research may be a popular idea, there are other
exciting therapies that are much further along in development and that do
not require the destruction of embryonic human beings. To cite a few recent
examples: adult rat brain cells successfully generated rat muscle tissue;
stems cells from umbilical cord blood became "brain tissue [when injected
into rats' brains], maturing into the type of cell appropriate for that area
of the brain"; cow skin tissue was reprogrammed to its stem cell state and
then transformed into heart tissue; human thigh muscle from a patient has
been turned into contracting heart muscle cells; and researchers have
converted human fat cells obtained through liposuction into bone, muscle and
There are many ethical arguments put forth both for and against the use of
human embryonic stem cells for medical research. Here is one case in favor
of such research, provided in the September 2000 Senate subcommittee
testimony of Dr. Richard Hynes, Professor of Biology at M.I.T.:
[We] believe it would be immoral not to pursue embryonic stem cell research
... because this research has such enormous potential to save human lives
and to mitigate human suffering……. Surely, we should take advantage of the
enormous life-saving potential of the thousands of embryos that are
currently frozen and destined for destruction. ... We owe it to all those
who are suffering to explore all possible avenues that could lead to the
prevention of, and remedies for, disease.
But the premise that because the need is great, the effort should be great
and ALL possible avenues explored, is clearly not ethically valid. If an
adult does not give consent to be an organ donor, states do not presume the
right to use that person's organs for transplantation, even if the person is
dead. Much less would any state instruct researchers in how to kill him by
harvesting his organs while he is still alive. In this case, the developing
human entity, cannot give consent to be sacrificed–hence using precepts of
natural law, the State should not subsidize and promote that sacrifice.
Catholics, along with Americans of many other religious backgrounds or none,
believe that each individual has rights and duties, including a duty to
respect the existence of other individuals. Simply to claim that the
research potential is promising has not been seen as sufficient to justify
funding countless other approaches to curing disease, many of which present
no ethical problem. So one cannot reasonably demand funding for this
research on the basis that it may have potential to one day mitigate
disease, without taking into account the fact that it involves the
destruction of living embryonic humans.
The ethical arguments that support fetal or embryonic research assume that
the fetus and embryo do not have rights equal to individuals further along
in their development (i.e., older). In short, one must define the embryo as
a human cell mass that does not have the same right to life as us, more
differentiated cell masses. If that assumption were correct, would it then
be unethical not to have embryo farms in order to save the further
differentiated human beings who we value more? And which other groups of
undeveloped, underdeveloped or no longer productive humans may we apply this
premise to next?
The medical and scientific basis for funding embryonic stem cell research is
debatable. The ethical basis hinges on accepting a ranked valuation of
humans according to how far they have developed. The most compelling secular
argument against funding lies in its conflict with the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights establishes a government whereby the rights of the
individual supercede the perceived rights of the State. George Mason, the
author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights (part of Virginia's State
Constitution) on which was modeled the Bill of Rights, was a delegate to the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He was one of three delegates who
would not approve the U.S. Constitution unless it included such a Bill of
Rights. Without this, Mason believed, the "Government would end either in
monarchy, or a tyrannical aristocracy; which one, he was in doubt, but one
or other he was sure." James Madison convinced Mason to support Virginia's
ratification of the U.S. Constitution by assuring him that his Bill of
Rights would be added as amendments. Madison kept his word.
Mason believed that unless the people retained their ability to defend the
specific individual rights articulated in the first ten amendments, just
government would eventually devolve into one in which the majority could
inflict injustice on less favored groups. Thus the rights of the individual
have been protected throughout the history of the republic. When debate on
what constitutes human life reaches a flash point, as with slavery and now
with abortion, the premise of one side had to be defeated. In the case of
slavery, it took the Civil War to establish the precedent that all people
are worthy of Constitutional protection.
In the case of abortion, an interesting paradigm has developed. Since, at
the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, a majority of Supreme Court justices
stated uncertainty about when life begins, they allowed the right of one
individual to take precedence over the right of another. The right of the
mother to terminate her pregnancy took precedence over the right of her
developing child to live. But now, by proposing federal support for human
embryo research, the State will be deciding the best use of an individual
for the State's purposes, for the first time in American law.
Abortion is not performed for any government-assigned purpose in the United
States as, for example, in China. It is performed at the request of one
individual, the mother, to terminate the life of another individual, the
unborn child. Federally sponsored and approved research that endorses using
human embryos for social good is a cataclysmic paradigm shift. The NIH, with
federal support, will for the first time determine that human individuals
can be used and destroyed in medical experimentation in the interests of the
As I told the Senate
History has amply demonstrated the ghastly consequences when government
arbitrarily defines what constitutes human life. I am not suggesting that
those who want to use human embryonic tissue are of the same mind. However,
the law is based on precedent, and once the United States allows the
individual human embryo to be sacrificed for a perceived greater good, the
greatest defense for the rights of individuals will have been eroded.
We are not alone in our religious conviction that God created human beings
as the most precious creation on earth. Like Jesus, Mohammad also broke from
standard religious thought of the time by suggesting that individuals were
responsible for their own behavior, and that Allah cared for each one of us.
Earlier still, the Genesis account dramatized how individuals' choices,
including the choice whether to take the life of another individual, can
transform our world for better or worse. The U.S. Constitution incorporated
these precepts in fashioning a workable model of government that has
produced the greatest civilization in history.
It is our duty as Americans to prevent the destruction of the Bill of Rights
through trivializing the protection it affords all individuals, including
embryos. It is our calling as Catholics to protect our smallest, most
vulnerable treasures. As part of this calling, it is also our responsibility
to find God's Word in secular documents such as the United States
Constitution–learn it, articulate it, and live it so as to conduct our lives
consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Usala, a pediatric endocrinologist, is Chief Scientific Officer and
Medical Director of Encelle, Inc.